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Research: Ho, Ho, Who?

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Thalia Goldstein, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology, is researching how very young children relate to the concept of Santa Claus.

Christmas may come but once a year, but for Thalia R. Goldstein, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, it’s a year-round fascination. Among her research interests is how young children understand the boundary between fantasy and reality, and what better test case than the Jolly Old Elf himself? 

For example, do little kids question how Santa Claus can cover the whole planet in just one night? Or that his reindeers fly? How does the roly-poly fellow squeeze down chimneys with his big bag of toys? And, perhaps most confusing, how come there’s a Santa inside the mall and a bunch more ringing their bells outside?

Over the past several years, Goldstein and her undergraduate and graduate research assistants have interviewed children and their parents at a children’s museum in Connecticut, at Pace, and online to find out.

On average, they’ve found, children see three to five different Santas during the holiday season. Encouraged by their parents, they may also watch movies or read books about Santa and engage in other Santa-related rituals such as putting out cookies and milk. It all adds up to eight to ten “Santa-promoting” ideas a year on average, she says.

Interestingly, her research has found that the more mall Santas children are exposed to, the more likely they are to believe that the mall Santa either is the real deal or is in contact with him. She hypothesizes that children are taking the appearance of multiple Santas as evidence of his magic and ability to know all about whether they are being naughty and nice.    

Goldstein and other researchers have found that children tend to become skeptical around age six or seven, and by eight or nine have generally stopped believing—though, of course, they still appreciate the toys. If the kids have younger siblings they often join their parents in helping perpetuate the fantasy.

While parents might yearn to prolong the magic for as long as possible, Goldstein observes, kids have minds of their own. Her advice to parents: “If your children come to you with questions about Santa, ask them what they think and try to follow their leads. Don’t try to convince them otherwise. Basically, trust your children—they’re going to do what they need to do to developmentally.”

Goldstein, who has done much of this work in collaboration with Jacqueline Woolley, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, came to Santa by way of Cinderella. She wanted to know how kids reconcile someone they know to be a storybook character with the live actresses they see impersonating her at places like Disney World. Future research might involve the comic book and live action characters that have proliferated in New York City’s Times Square and elsewhere.

What does the average two- or three-year-old think upon meeting a six-foot-tall version of Elmo or Woody from Toy Story, for example? “It’s a really weird phenomenon that we put our children through,” Goldstein says, “and one that, at this point, we don’t know a lot about.”