There's a scientific reason why kids around 8 or 9 tend to stop believing in Santa — and no, it's not because their parents failed to leave carrots on the lawn or half-eaten cookies on the mantle.
It's simply the age when kids start becoming more curious about the sheer physical plausibility of Santa's Christmas routine. Can reindeer really fly? How does a man of Santa's robustness manage to squeeze down a chimney? And can he really canvas the entire world in a single night? They're questions kids naturally begin asking as their sense of skepticism starts to develop.
These findings come from a recent study on children's "understanding of physical possibility" and its relationship to their belief in Santa Claus. Older children, the researchers found, were "more likely to exhibit conceptual curiosity about Santa than younger children."
Researchers had children aged 3 to 9 complete a series of assignments to measure their conceptual understanding of Santa — among them, writing letters to Santa in which they were to ask "information-seeking questions" on topics such as elves, reindeer or the North Pole. The questions were coded as "factual" if they "presupposed the truth of the Santa myth," or "conceptual" if they "challenged the conceptual underpinnings of the myth altogether."
The results indicated that, "older children, who are typically more sophisticated than younger children in their understanding of physical possibility, are also seemingly more curious about the conceptual mysteries (and inconsistencies) in the mythology surrounding Santa," the researchers found.
The kids were also tasked with explaining how Santa manages to accomplish five of the "physically extraordinary feats he is purported to perform," including traveling around the world in a single night, knowing whether each kid has been naughty or nice and making every toy in one factory.
Kids with "causal" answers sought to explain the activities — arguing, for instance, that the flying reindeer are attached to yarn.
The researchers tracked whether kids' responses were causal or not. Kids with "causal" answers sought to explain the activities — arguing, for instance, that the flying reindeer are attached to yarn, or that Santa monitors kids' behavior via hidden cameras. Those with non-causal answers threw out irrelevant information, reiterated the facts (reindeers fly because they fly!) or wholeheartedly attributed the feat to magic.
"Clearly, the activities defy explanation," the researchers wrote, "but we sought to assess whether children viewed the activities as potentially explainable, even if they were unsure of the correct explanation."
Kids with a stronger overall understanding of the possibility of extraordinary events — not just those related to Christmas — tended to provide more casual explanations about Santa Claus, the researchers found. In other words, kids who could acknowledge that it's technically possible to grow a beard to your toes were more likely to offer up explanations for Santa's unlikely behavior.
Regardless of whatever magical testimony you continue to give your kids, they're naturally going to stop believing in Santa, the researchers suggest.
"These findings do not suggest that children come to believe in Santa because they are gullible or fantasy-prone," the authors wrote, "but they do suggest that some children may stop believing in Santa because they reach a level of conceptual understanding at which the Santa myth no longer appears credible, regardless, perhaps, of the testimony they continue to receive in support of the myth."
There's nothing you can do to stop your kids from questioning the Santa myth — or from growing up, in general. Merry Christmas!