I remember the last time my husband and I stood in line at the mall so our little girl could sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what she wanted for Christmas. That was five years ago but the photo taken that day stayed on the refrigerator for years. I just loved that picture. With her beaming smile and great big eyes, the photo perfectly captured the excitement she felt at finally having some face time with Santa.
But according to a study by John W. Trinkaus, professor emeritus at the Zicklin School of Business, City University of New York, most kids don’t look like that when they sit on Santa’s lap. In fact, most of them look like they couldn’t care less that they are meeting Santa face to face.
For four years in a row, professor Trinkaus recorded the facial expressions of over 1,000 children as they met mall Santas. He then grouped their expressions into six categories: exhilarated, happy, indifferent, hesitant, saddened or terrified. Surprisingly, he found that more than 80% of the children who visited with Santa wore expressions of indifference. Another 15% or so percent seemed terrified, while only one percent smiled or seemed at all happy.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the parents (87%) seemed quite happy that their child was there.
What this seemed to suggest to Trinkaus is that, perhaps, there is a “hardening of society, even down to the level of kids.” He goes on to conclude that, perhaps, “kids are growing up too fast, that ‘childhood’ is vanishing, that the culture is changing….”
Over at Baby Center’s Momformation blog, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. notes that the study leads to an obvious question: Should we even be filling our children’s heads with images of Santa? And what happens when they find out the truth? (Spoiler alert! Send the kids out of the room!)
It seems to me that the Santa Claus story can be a delightful exercise in shared make-believe for parents and children. If we think of the Santa tradition in this way–as an opportunity for pretend play–maybe it doesn’t seem quite as troubling.
I tend to agree with Dewar. We have always told fairy tales to our children. Not as a way to deceive them, but as a way to inspire the feelings of wonder that we ourselves felt when our parents told us those same stories. Fairy tales are a way to communicate simple truths of honesty, justice and perseverance in a way that kids can understand.
And besides, even if kids seem indifferent when they meet Santa face-to-face, there haven’t been many studies that I am aware of that examine the faces of children when they wake up on Christmas Day to find that Santa has been there. Those expressions are priceless.
Image: Joe Schlabotnik/Flickr