Detroit — When 10-year-old Ryan Martin stopped believing in Santa Claus last year, his mom cried.
"He realized some of his toys were made in China" and not the North Pole, says Tracy Martin, a 36-year-old Clinton Township, Mich., resident. "We said outsourcing. He didn't buy it."
Now, she's worried that 8-year-old son Alec is starting to have his own doubts.
"He wants to believe, but there are some classmates who say there's no Santa," she says.
The situation is one many parents are facing, as widespread use of the Internet, increasing religious diversity in schools and disenchanted siblings - who seem to be reaching their own conclusions about Santa at a younger age each year - are making it harder than ever for kids to believe.
The sticky subject has also left many parents wondering: How far should they go to keep the magic of Santa alive?
When Kristi Willaert was a little girl, her relatives made reindeer tracks in the snow outside her house, fueling the 38-year-old Clinton Township resident's belief in Santa for years. Now, Willaert employs her own measures to keep her two children believing. Santa's presents are in special wrapping paper, and she carefully fields questions about his abilities. It is all for a higher purpose, she says.
"We all still want to believe, the way the world is today," she says.
But not everyone agrees. On Internet discussion boards, the debate has gone on for months. A query earlier this month, on a Yahoo! message board about how to broach the Santa subject with children, generated two dozen responses within a day, a high number compared with other advice requests on the site.
The highest-rated answer advised parents not to dodge the question. "It doesn't feel 'magical' to lie to my child," wrote one person. "I want her to trust me and my judgment. Will she still trust me when she finds out I was in on this conspiracy?"
The question hasn't escaped Liz Gershoff, a mother of two and an assistant professor of child development at the University of Michigan.
"As a parent, I'm torn," says Gershoff, who celebrates Christmas but has told her 5-year-old son that Santa Claus is just pretend. "I don't want to make my kids afraid there's this man coming into our house when we're asleep. In this day and age, kids may not find it very comforting that somebody's breaking into their house - even if he is bringing presents."
She adds that she understands the appeal of keeping the idea of Santa alive. "Parents really like doing it - they get to pretend with their kids for a bit. We don't usually get to do that."
As the religious diversity in schools increases, it's more likely that kids will begin to question Santa based on what classmates who don't celebrate Christmas tell them. Dale Wood was told there was no Santa by a Jewish classmate in first grade, but said he pretended to believe for his parents' sake.
"I think they liked it," said the 31-year-old Grand Rapids, Mich., resident, adding that when he and his wife have children, they plan to emphasize the story of St. Nicholas rather than the magic of Santa Claus.
At Bemis Elementary in Troy, Mich., principal Jan Keeling says teachers handle the matter "as diplomatically as they can."
"Obviously we walk a fairly fine line," she says. "We have a very diverse community, and certainly not all of our children participate in Christmas."
Keeling added that, in her experience, exposure to new technology has increasingly become the most common way children begin to doubt Santa's existence.
"Kids are bombarded and exposed to so much in terms of different media. ... Parents would say that is the way Santa Claus is being taken away from kids at earlier and earlier ages," she says.