New research shows hospitalized children steadfastly believe in Santa, and the sicker they are the longer they seem to hold on to the fantasy.
A survey of 45 kids hospitalized with acute or chronic diseases such as leukemia and cystic fibrosis showed 27 of them believed firmly in Santa's existence, and the chronically ill kids took a year longer to stop believing than the others.
Dr. Claude Cyr, a Canadian pediatrician who is the study's author, says the results bring good tidings.
"Hospitalized children are faced with an adult world of doctors and nurses, so believing in Santa is a reflection of their magical thinking, which is really, really important, especially with chronically ill children," he says. "Sometimes we don't have any treatment for their diseases, so believing in something as magical as Santa Claus can help these kids keep the faith and make them more able to go through their bad moments."
Children suffering from acute or chronic diseases are subjected to repeated painful procedures, and one way to diminish the trauma and the pain is to talk about positive things, Cyr explains.
"When I give a shot, I ask them to talk about Santa. I ask them whether they've been naughty or nice and what they've asked Santa to bring them," he says. "This usually makes them forget what we're doing."
The study, which appeared in a recent issue of Canadian Medical Association Journal, involved 22 girls and 23 boys. All the kids were Christians and patients in a pediatric ward or a pediatric intensive care unit at Sherbrooke Hospital in Quebec.
Interviews included a range of Santa-related questions, beginning with an open-ended request to "tell (Cyr) about Santa." Other questions explored the kids' overall knowledge about Santa's costume, the color of his beard and the location of his home. The strength of each child's belief was rated according to a five-point scale, with three and over indicating a believer.
In the second part of the study, the children's parents were quizzed about their own convictions as well as their ages when they stopped believing in St. Nick. The kids were asked about other childhood fantasy figures, like the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and imaginary friends. Parents' and kids' scores were combined to give a final HO-HO score of family fantasy predisposition.
According to the results, the younger the child, the greater the faith. By age 10, most of them no longer regarded Santa as a real entity, and their "enlightenment" usually occurred around the same age their parents were when they abandoned the fantasy.
The average age of believers was 6, except for the chronically ill patients where the norm was 7.
Compared with acutely ill kids who need intermittent treatment, chronically ill children usually undergo daily medical procedures, Cyr says. Because their world is filled with grown-ups, they mature faster than other children.
"The fact that they hold onto their fantasy figures a little longer surprises me, but it definitely pleases me," he says.
Dr. Hazel Ipp, a Toronto psychologist and vice president of the Toronto Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis, says fantasy is an important part of childhood, especially with seriously ill kids.
"It perpetuates feelings of hope and a future, and at the same time offers a reprieve from their present reality. It offers a retreat in fantasy from the harsh realities characterizing their present trauma," Ipp explains.
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