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Not too grown up to let Santa go

As children get older, some parents put off facing their kids' disbelief in jolly old St. Nick as long as possible.

Published December 11, 2005

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Daniel Campbell, 11, flashes a thumbs up for a picture with Santa. "I don't know how he can be everywhere, every second at once," says a skeptical Daniel.

Shannon Kloss knows it's just a matter of time before her stepson Gavin asks the inevitable question. Soon, the 9-year-old will ask about Santa Claus.

To buy time, Kloss has been telling Gavin that Santa is her great-great-grandfather.

"Sometimes he goes along with it and sometimes he doesn't," she says.

According to research, which is minimal, Gavin is in the minority. Most children start questioning the existence of Santa Claus when they are between 6 and 8. By the time they are 9 or 10, most have ceased believing entirely, said Paul Harris, a developmental psychologist and a professor at Harvard University.

"It's not as if they wake up and say, "I don't believe in Santa Claus,' " Harris said. "It seems to sink in over a period of time. Some are prepared to go along with the belief for a while longer, either because it's fun or for the sake of younger brothers or sisters."

Others remain skeptical for a year or two, unable to explain how Santa can exist, yet not quite ready to let go of the fantasy, Harris said.

John Miller of St. Petersburg is 15 and no longer visits Santa, but he went with his three younger sisters and little brother to see him. Even now he won't tell his mother that's he's nonbeliever.

"She tells me I have to believe to get presents," he said.

Contrary to popular belief, children feel little distress once they know the truth, Harris said.

"Having straighted out the story, they feel a certain sense of satisfaction in having drawn a conclusion that makes sense of some discrepancies that have been bothering them for one or two Christmases," he said.

That's how it was for Lauren Logan, now an eighth-grader at Monroe Middle School in South Tampa. Lauren, now 13, started having doubts a couple of years ago, when her friends told her there was no Santa. She didn't believe them, but then she caught her mom wrapping presents.

"I asked her, "So there's no Santa?' " Lauren said. "At first she said there was, and then she confessed."

Research shows parents usually try put off facing their children's disbelief as long as possible.

"Their predominant reaction is sadness," said Carl Anderson, a counseling psychologist and an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "They realize that little Johnny or little Suzy is growing up and not seeing the world in quite the magical and mystical way they had before."

Lanette Campbell, whose son Daniel is a fifth-grader at Clearwater Intermediate School, watched wistfully on a recent Saturday afternoon as the 11-year-old told the Tyrone Square Mall Santa that he wanted a PlayStation 2, a cell phone, a kitten and a rabbit.

"A couple of years ago he started figuring out the mall Santa might not be the real Santa," Campbell said. "But I want him to be a kid for as long as he can be. I want him to hold on as long as he can to the magic of it."

Ralph Kretzer, who has been the Tyrone Mall Santa for 11 years, said children often ask in roundabout ways if he is the real deal. Sometimes they are more forthright. "I'll never lie to the kids," said Kretzer, who is 81. "But I'll answer with a question. I'll ask, "What do you think?' "

Anderson, the psychologist, has been playing Santa in Texas shopping centers for 23 years. Like Kretzer, he has long white hair and an authentic long white beard.

"The kids won't pull on it, but they'll try to steal a little touch," he said. "Sometimes they'll have a question, like, "How do reindeer fly?' I'll tell them a lot of that has to do with elf magic, which I don't understand."

Regardless of whether children believe in Santa, Anderson thinks it's possible for them to retain their belief in the magic of Christmas.

"I had a little boy around 10 one time who looked up at me and said, "You've been very good to me over the years, but I don't think I'll be coming to see you anymore,' " Harris said. "I think that shows there are a lot of children who can make the transition from believing to not believing but still retain an understanding of the specialness of what Santa represents."

That specialness is what south Tampa resident Anna Quezada is trying to convey to her children. This year, she suggested that Paula, 10, and Mariana, 8, who no longer believe in Santa Claus, donate a portion of their allowance to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "I want them to be aware they're very lucky to receive all these gifts," said Quezada. "I want them to not only receive, but to give."

[Last modified December 11, 2005, 02:00:33]

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