By Dayna Mason
Whether or not we participate in the Santa story, we will no doubt encounter several versions of jolly old St. Nick this month. For those who believe, not only is it not harmful to believe in Santa, engaging in the magic and wonder this time of year offers could be good for us and our children in many ways.
The childish delight of magical thinking
Magical thinking blurs the lines between objective reality and subjective experience—such as believing that a jolly man wearing a red suit delivers toys to every child in the world in less than 24 hours using flying reindeer for transportation. Magical thinking is a normal part of our cognitive development, most prominent in children between ages 2 and 7. Kids love magical ideas and will happily accept impossible explanations. The overwhelming success of Harry Potter is a great example.
It is believed that magical thinking positively affects children’s cognitive development by enhancing creative divergent thinking—otherwise known as problem solving. And according to Eugene Subbotsky, PhD in Developmental Psychology, continues beyond childhood. Subbotsky suggests that “magical thinking is not outgrown but merely driven underground by social and cultural pressures that place a greater value on science, logic, and rational thought. Specifically, in late childhood, magical thinking becomes suppressed but never extinguished.”
And when activated, magical thinking serves to foster imagination and creativity in both children and adults.
The Santa story is a healthy part of childhood development
Psychologists suggest that for many children, believing in Santa is a normal and healthy part of development.
Kristen Dunfield, Developmental Scientist at Concordia University says, “I’m interested in how trust develops and what happens when it’s broken. During the holiday season, I spend a lot of time thinking about Santa. I see the development of a belief in the physical reality of Santa, and the eventual myth-busting, as impressive achievements to be celebrated, not feared!”
Research in developmental psychology suggests that such illusory beliefs are not harmful but actually help to develop the counterfactual reasoning skills needed for human innovation and to boost emotional development.
Children usually figure out the truth about Santa on their own around the age of seven, the age of reason, and typically respond positively.
“When they learn the truth, children accept the rules of the game and even go along with their parents in having younger children believe in Santa,” says Serge Larivée, a psycho-education professor at the University of Montréal. “It becomes a rite of passage in that they know they are no longer babies.”
“There’s really no one right time to tell kids that there’s no Santa Claus,” says Glen Elliott, Ph.D. Elliott, Director of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychology, University of California. “The important thing is to take your cues from the child, and not try to prolong the fantasy for your own enjoyment when they may be ready to give it up.”
Imagination is a normal part of development and helps mature creative minds, and the Santa story can contribute positively to a child’s psychological growth.
Magical thinking lives on into adulthood
Magical thinking can expand the realm of our thinking about what is possible. It is part of our cognitive architecture. This architecture leads us to seek causality, even when no actual link exists between a behavior and an outcome.
Even the most rational people engage in magical thinking. Many people would be apprehensive about buying a house where someone had been murdered or experience irrational feelings if asked to wear a shirt previously owned by a serial killer.
Superstition is another common way that adults engage in magical thinking. For example, someone who always wears the same tie when they give a speech because they believe it will help them perform better. But as silly as this may seem, research suggests that this type of positive superstition may increase perceived self-effectiveness and therefore improve performance.
Positive thinking is another example of magical thinking, which appears to reduce anxiety about the future, improve our assertiveness, and may actually bring about our desired outcome.
As adults, magical thinking can enhance our cognitive functioning, improving creative thinking, perception and memory. And the magical belief that we have a higher purpose in life can propel us into a bigger future and give us energy and hope.
Seek wonder-full moments
Wikipedia defines wonder as “an emotion comparable to surprise that people feel when perceiving something very rare or unexpected. It has historically been seen as an important aspect of human nature, specifically being linked with curiosity and the drive behind intellectual exploration.”
We are wired to perceive our world in a state of wonder. If we take the time to slow down and open our senses to the life around us, we can experience more wonder-full moments.
This holiday season let’s allow ourselves to suspend disbelief, be curious and seek opportunities for wonder in the sights and sounds of the season—look at each delicately hung, uniquely designed ornament on the tree, take in the cacophony of street sounds as we make our way to our next festive engagement, and maybe even look into the night sky on December 24th for a sleigh and some flying reindeer.
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