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Is it magical thinking to realise that Christmas will soon be upon us? Over the next four weeks, our airwaves and TVs will be flooded with Christmas songs and movies. The main feature of these is the gift-giving, jolly man called Santa Claus.
Although different in many ways from the European and North American countries where the legend of Santa Claus originated, in the Caribbean, Santa Claus is no stranger to children.
Generally, Santa was introduced to us through the movies, stories and songs that we watched, heard and sang along to every Christmas. Santa Claus is synonymous with Christmas because he does not pop up any other time during the year.
Whether or not Santa was a real person or a folklore legend, globally, many parents who celebrate Christmas encourage their children to believe in Santa Claus. Some parents even go as far as dressing up as Santa for children every year. This belief in Santa is an aspect of magical thinking, but what is it and should you encourage it?
What is Magical Thinking?
Magical thinking or fantastical thinking is the belief that your thoughts and wishes can affect or change the outcome of events in the physical world (Subbotsky, 2014).
However, according to psychology, magical thinking is a normal feature of children’s cognitive development.
According to Piaget, during the preoperational stage of development, between toddlerhood and early childhood, children’s intelligence develops with the emergence of language and the ability to use symbols (Huitt & Hummel, 2003).
These abilities allow children to project their minds onto their environment. This capacity gives children a very active imagination during this phase. So, fantasy now becomes a feature of children’s thoughts and play.
Should You Encourage Children’s Magical Thinking?
Fantastical thinking is a feature of normal child development.
Besides the legend of Santa Claus, parents engage and encourage their children’s magical thinking regularly. With that I mean, stories of myths and legends, fairy tales, and exposure to animism. These are all examples of magical thinking.
Animism is giving creatures and inanimate objects human and spiritual characteristics.
Animism is the main feature of children’s programmes, with examples like Pepper Pig, Bugs Bunny and the Lion King, popular in many countries around the world.
Often, culture is transmitted through myths, legends and folklore to children and this is the basis of magical thinking.
Magical Thinking in Psychology
Psychologists have noted that magical thinking benefits children’s cognitive development.
A research study showed that fantastical thinking positively impacted children’s cognitive development in creativity and art (Subbotsky, Hysted, & Jones, 2010).
The study found that showing children the Harry Potter movie before they completed a creative task resulted in higher scores for those children when compared to children who did not see the movie before completing the same task.
Additionally, the evolution of fantastical thinking to adult imagination is responsible for the films, literature, architecture and art that we enjoy, both as children and adults.
In fact, contrary to beliefs, we do not lose fantastical thinking when we become adults. It is a fundamental part of the human mind and continues throughout our lifespan (Subbotsky, 2014).
Research has shown that 40% of Americans believe in devils, ghosts and spiritual healing.
Our capacity for fantastical thinking is the basis of the fantasy genre in movies and literature that have targeted children and adults alike. TV series and movies like the Game of Thrones, the Twilight Series, X-Men, The Avengers, and of course, Harry Potter are global successes.
The Danger of Magical Thinking
Although fantastical thinking is a normal aspect of the human mind, there may be cause for concern when children’s magical thinking becomes an obsession.
In this sense, parents should be discouraged from engaging their children’s magical thinking as it could be a sign of a mental illness.
For example, a study has shown the link between children’s magical thinking and obsessive thoughts and behaviour which, could develop into obsessive-compulsive disorder(OCD) (Subbotsky, 2014).
So, having navigated the stresses of living through a global pandemic, I think both adults can children can indulge in a little bit of magic this Christmas season.
What do you think about encouraging children’s belief in Santa Claus?
Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget’s Theory of Cognitve Development. Educational Psychology Interactive. Retrieved from https://intranet.newriver.edu/images/stories/library/stennett_psychology_articles/Piagets%20Theory%20of%20Cognitive%20Development.pdf
Subbotsky, E. (2014). Magical thinking: From Piaget to advertising Psychological Review. 4, 10-13.
Subbotsky, E., Hysted, C., & Jones, N. (2010). Watching Films with Magical Content Facilitates Creativity in Children. Sage Journal, 111(1), 261-277. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/04.09.11.PMS.111.4.261-277