The miracle of skepticism

The kids are all grown at Casa NewsCut and they’re not around today, so I’m sitting here reminiscing about Christmas mornings past and, for the record, not feeling guilty at all about the big lie.

In fact, I can’t recall the moment when each of the kids learned about you-know-who, although the day my older sister revealed life’s truth to me is seared into the brain forever.

Still, for those young parents who’ve approached this day with a combination of joy and concern that Mom and Dad are fibbing to the kid and the moment of their realization will be horrible, this piece of advice: don’t sweat it. It’s not as if you have to have the “big talk” with them about this. Save your energy for the real “big talk.”

NPR’s Cosmos and Culture blog today carries details of research that shows that kids figure these things out by being able to differentiate between the impossible from the improbable.

Shtulman and Yoo had 47 three- to nine-year-old children participate in a series of tasks designed to assess their understanding of physical possibility and their reasoning about Santa. In one task, children were asked to explain some of Santa’s extraordinary properties, such as his ability to travel around the world in one night, to fit down narrow chimneys, and to somehow or other figure out whether each child has been naughty or nice.

In response, children often failed to generate anything resembling an explanation, instead simply restating the extraordinary property or offering irrelevant information. And 14 percent of explanations referenced magic. But a substantial 40 percent reflected genuine attempts to make sense of Santa’s properties within the confines of physically possible mechanisms, even if the explanations ultimately fell short in some way. For example, one child explained Santa’s ability to reach all houses by suggesting that “he makes multiple trips.” Another explained that he fits down chimneys by removing his jacket β€” and, yet another, that he knows which children are naughty and which are nice because “he has cameras all around the world” (we’re still waiting to hear from Edward Snowden on the possibility of that one, actually).

Interestingly, the researchers found that those children who offered such explanations were also better at differentiating impossible events, such as traveling back in time, from merely improbable events, such as finding an alligator under the bed. And when given the chance to write a letter to Santa, which they did at the very start of the study, they were also more likely to ask Santa questions about his extraordinary abilities, such as how his sled flies, potentially reflecting some inchoate skepticism. These relationships held up even when factoring out the effects of children’s age.

“Children are naturally curious, and developing a more sophisticated understanding of physical possibility only added to that curiosity,” the researcher said. “The fact that children are curious about Santa β€” and possibly even skeptical β€” is not cause for despair. If anything, it’s cause for celebration because it means that they are thinking critically about what they are told, questioning the basis of their beliefs.”

It’s unclear when that ability to think critically stops, however.

  • John

    Merry Christmas, Bob. Miles told me he’d figured it out one day when we were driving somewhere and out of the blue he said “isn’t it really expensive for you guys to buy all the presents from Santa and you guys too?” Always practical, that one.

    I told him if he wrecked it for his sister, I’d kill him. So far, he’s still around.

  • Jack

    Our son figured it out when he figured out that “Santa’s” handwriting on the gift tags looked suspiciously like his mother’s.

    Being an only child, we didn’t have to beat around the bush for very long but did warn him not to spoil it for his friends at school.

    This year he bought presents with his own money for us – it’s a first! Guess we are all getting older.

  • Al

    Super-Christian Friend: “We don’t do Santa. We tell the kids it’s a wonderful story about the spirit of giving, and if other people want to believe it, that’s fine.”

    Super-Atheist Friend: “Funny, that’s our plan for Jesus.”

  • DJ Wambeke

    This article brought me a chuckle. I distinctly remember when the only thing stopping my own skepticism on the issue from taking over was the fact that the Dec. 24 evening news always hauled out the meteorologist for the “santa tracker” segment. Because, if it’s on the news, it must be true, right? πŸ™‚
    It gave me a couple more years of childhood wonder, anyway…