It's a conundrum many parents wrestle with: We don't want to lie to our kids, but when it comes to Santa, sometimes we're not exactly giving them the full truth either.
For Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, lying to daughters Lincoln, 6, and Delta, 5, just isn't an option, so everyone in the Bell-Shepard household knows the truth about Santa.
Bell was super real about Santa during an interview with Mothery co-founder Liz Tenety for the first episode of season three of the Motherly Podcast. In the episode (which drops Thursday, March 5), Bell tells Tenety that her own mom told her to never lie to her daughter, so when her daughter asked her about Santa, she told the truth.
"[Our daughter] said, 'You know, something stinks about this whole Santa thing because if a flight to Europe takes that long, how can he make it back?' And my husband and I looked at each other and I immediately thought, 'Am I going to look at this little girl and tell her to stop the instinct in her body that tells her when something's wrong and to ask questions? Or am I going to reward this behavior of critical thinking?'" Bell tells Tenety.
This isn't the first time Bell and Shepard have opened up about their Santa struggles.
"This is going to be very controversial," Shepard told Us Weekly back in 2018. "I have a fundamental rule that I will never lie to them, which is challenging at times. Our 5-year-old started asking questions like, 'Well, this doesn't make sense, and that doesn't make sense.' I'm like, 'You know what? This is just a fun thing we pretend while it's Christmas.'"
According to Shepard, this has not diminished the magic of Christmas in their home. "They love watching movies about Santa, they love talking about Santa," Shepard told Us. "They don't think he exists, but they're super happy and everything's fine."
Research indicates that Shepard and Bell are so right—kids can be totally happy and into Christmas even after figuring out the truth and that most kids do start to untangle the Santa myth on their own, as Lincoln did.
Studies suggest that for many kids, the myth fades around age seven, but for some kids, it's sooner, and that's okay.
Writing for The Conversation, Kristen Dunfield, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Concordia University, suggests that when kids come to parents with the hard questions about Santa, parents may feel a bit sad, but can take some comfort in "recognizing these challenging questions for what they are—cognitive development in action."
Kids aren't usually the ones who are upset when they figure it out, researchers note. Typically, kids are kind of proud of themselves for being such great detectives. It's the parents who feel sadness.
Some parents may not choose to be as blunt as Shepard, and that's okay, too. According to Dunfield, if you don't want to answer questions about Santa with 100% truth, you can answer a question with a question.
"If instead you want to let your child take the lead, you can simply direct the question back to them, allowing your child to come up with explanations for themselves: "I don't know, how do you think the sleigh flies?" Dunfield writes.
While Shepard and Bell acknowledge that telling a 3-year-old that Santa is pretend might be controversial, they're hardly the first parents to present Santa this way. There are plenty of healthy, happy adults whose parents told them the truth.
LeAnne Shepard (no relation to Dax) is one of them. Now a mother herself, LeAnne's parents clued her into the Santa myth early, for religious reasons that were common in her community.
"In the small Texas town where I grew up, I wasn't alone in my disbelief. Many parents, including mine, presented Santa Claus as a game that other families played," she previously wrote. "That approach allowed us to get a picture on Santa's lap, watch the Christmas classics, and enjoy all the holiday festivities so long as we remembered the actual reason for the season. It was much like when I visited Disney World and met Minnie Mouse; I was both over the moon excited and somewhat aware that she was not actually real."
No matter why you want to tell your children the truth about Santa, know that it's okay to let the kids know that he's pretend. Kristen Bell's kids prove that knowing the truth about Santa doesn't have to make Christmas any less exciting. Pretending can be magical, too.
To hear more about Bell's experiences in motherhood and her career listen to The Motherly Podcast for the full interview.
[A version of this story was first posted on December 12, 2018. It has been updated.]