TUESDAY, Dec. 25, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Every Christmas season, there's that question parents dread.
"Is Santa Claus real?"
According to experts, beginning at age 5 or 6, children begin to wonder if the Jolly Old Gent with the reindeer isn't quite what he seems.
"They are beginning to ask a lot of questions, they start seeing the inconsistencies -- 'Hey, we don't have a chimney, how does Santa get in here?' or 'the Santa at one department store looks different than the Santa I saw over there,' " said Bruce Henderson, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.
Worse still, some party-pooper sibling or school friend pulls the child aside to whisper, "Santa isn't real."
What to do? The best course of action when the Santa story begins to show some cracks is to simply listen to your child and take your cue from there, experts say.
"When a kid comes to you after school and says, 'Joey told me Santa's not real,' I always tell parents to then ask, 'So, what do you think?,' " said Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center, in New York City.
Sometimes, he said, youngsters will jump to Mr. Claus' defense.
"If a kid says, 'Well, I think Santa is real,' then your response should be something like, 'Then he's just as real as he possibly can be,' " Hilfer said.
On the other hand, other -- often older -- children may admit that they are having serious doubts. In that scenario, there's a way to agree without completely ruining the magic of Santa and the season.
"You might say, 'This is a thing that parents and families do -- they like to play games and pretend just like kids do sometimes, and this is one of those games,' " Hilfer said. Explaining the intent behind Santa Claus -- the giving, joyous spirit behind the man -- allows kids to understand the important role he's played in their lives and in the lives of children who still believe.
"They start seeing that spirit, and it then becomes less likely that they will want to ruin it for everyone else," Henderson said.
All of these transitions are in keeping with what experts know about the developing young mind, he said.
"The very nature of thinking during what's usually called the preschool years is pretty free-floating," Henderson said. "As best we can tell, this is how kids at that age exercise their minds."
At 3, 4, 5 years of age, especially, fantasy and reality tend to overlap, including figures such as imaginary friends, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.
"But kids gradually change, they gradually move to a kind of thinking that is much more concrete and rule-governed," Henderson said. "And as they do so, fantasy figures just drop out naturally as they start thinking more about how things are real and concrete. There's less room for fantasy."
Henderson said that age 6 is a typical "tipping point" in this regard, although this type of developmental curve can differ among children. But when children enter grade school, they can encounter new ideas about Santa that don't always mesh with what Mom and Dad have been telling them.
"And that's the real dilemma parents face -- am I going to push this, because it's been fun in the past?" Henderson said. "Parents can easily get into a situation where, if they are trying to maintain this facade, they have to come up with more and more fantastic explanations. And kids are too smart for that."
So, when fantasies like Santa begin to fade for your child, "you have got to take your cue from the kid," Henderson said. That means asking the child what he or she thinks and dealing with any doubts in a sensitive way.
According to the experts, the important thing to remember is that generations of children have handled the Santa Question and come out just fine.
"Kids are remarkably resilient that way, you don't have to worry about 'ruining' them," Henderson said.
"There's no magic, there's no smoke and mirrors here -- you are just trying to help kids sort stuff out," he said. "You don't have to explode all their myths, but you can catch a child where he or she is at."
There's more on healthy child development at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.