The Mystery of Magical Thinking

“There are three stages of a man’s life: He believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus.”  ~Unknown

There is nothing as endearing as young children’s belief in magic and the impossible. Believe it or not – the capacity for magical thinking actually stems from the same source as their impulsivity and egocentrism. Their immature brains are capable of handling only one thought or emotion at a time, that is why they lash out when frustrated and think fairness means they get all the toys. Ideally between the ages of 5 to 7 their brains will grow and they will be able to experience two thoughts at the same time, feeling conflict between them. Impulsive acts will be replaced with more tempered ones, e.g., part of me wants to throw the toy but the other side of me thinks that might hurt you.

A young child’s belief in magic stems from the fact there is no back of the mind to challenge their thinking. They are not capable of internally debating as to whether Santa Claus is real or if tooth fairies really do exchange money for teeth. When children start to be able to mix their thoughts and emotions it starts to bring this magical period to a close.

I still remember the day I discovered Santa wasn’t for real. I was seven and we were visiting my grandparents. With a ‘ho ho ho’ my Grandpa put on his red Santa suit and walked into the room with a sack full of presents. I looked at him and thought to myself, “Santa looks familiar, who does he look like?” After a minute I realized, “He looks like my Grandpa!” At this point I starting yelling, “Grandpa – is that you? Are you Santa?” The adults quickly responded with hushes and glares that served notice that I should be quiet with my observations. While they later protested that Santa was NOT Grandpa, I would not be shaken. One part of me saw my Grandpa in a red suit while the other toyed with whether he might indeed be the real thing. I ended up concluding that adults were big fibbers when it came to Santa.

The next year I felt compelled to demonstrate unequivocally that Grandpa and Santa were the same person. Given the previous year’s experience they had wisely changed strategies and Santa wasn’t coming in person but would leave a stocking with presents at the end of my bed. I decided at that point to create a trap that would at last prove me right. After wishing my family goodnight I went to my room and set up an elaborate booby trap of strings and cans that would be triggered when someone entered my room. I awoke to the sound of my Grandfather’s frightened howl and laughter as he found himself tangled up in my booby trap. There he was, caught ‘red handed’,  holding my Christmas stocking. At last I had my victory, Santa Claus and Grandpa were indeed the same person. Although one side of me was sad that I lost Santa that night and all things magical, I am grateful for the growth in my prefrontal cortex and all the tempering it brought.


Copyright Deborah MacNamara, PhD, Kid’s Best Bet – Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice and on faculty at the Neufeld Institute. She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids from the inside out. See or for more information.