Creative Child

Naughty or Nice: The Trouble with Using Santa for Behavior Modification

by Rebecca Eanes

“Santa Claus is watching you.” It’s a popular tactic – a built-in behavior control plan around the holidays - but do threats really produce better behavior? And do they belong in the parent-child relationship? To make matters worse for children, not only is Santa watching their every move from afar, but there’s a live-in spy who will tattle. The Elf on the Shelf is also watching, and reports all misbehavior back to Santa. Children are routinely being shamed to the “naughty list” and expected to live up to vague notions of “being good.” Christmas should be a time of joy, gratitude, giving, and cheer. Instead, we’ve made it a game of empty threats and creepy magical spies, and our children end up living in fear rather than enjoying the magic of the holiday season. That’s hardly fair. Consider the following points before you use the Santa threat this year.

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1. Would you rather your child behave out of respect for you or fear of an imaginary man? The obvious problem with the Santa threat of course is that it is temporary. Come December 26th, what new tactic will you use? This is always the problem with using threats to gain compliance – you always have to come up with new, bigger threats because the “benefits” don’t last. The only real authority comes through a positive, trusting relationship between parent and child. Threats, punishments, and shame only give you temporary control at best, and the emotional toll those take on children is a high price t pay for temporary control. The goal should be for children to listen because they have a genuine respect for you – and because they have learned self-discipline – not because they’re terrified they’ll end up on some made-up naughty list and disappoint an imaginary guy.


2. We forget what it’s like to be a child. We forget how it feels to be controlled – told what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed. We forget what it feels like to be threatened and manipulated in such a way. Imagine, for a moment, how you would feel in their shoes. What if someone threatened to report all of your mistakes and shortcomings to someone whose opinion you highly valued? Importantly, how would you feel toward the person making the threat? Hurt? Devalued? Resentful? Are these emotions we want to stir up in our kids?

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3. The Santa threat taints the spirit of the holiday season, and with it, your child’s memories of Christmas with family. If you’re going to use Santa at all, let it be in the spirit of magic and wonder, not fear. Let their memories be of baking cookies with a loving parent to leave by the fireplace and of feeling loved and worthy of receiving good things.


4. It damages the parent-child relationship. Threats have no place in a healthy, trusting relationship, and it’s only through a healthy, trusting relationship that you will have any influence as your child grows. Don’t squander it on a temporary hoax for momentary compliance.


The best way to have a well-behaved child is to help your child feel good about herself. Children who feel good – who feel seen, heard, accepted, and unconditionally loved – naturally behave better because they don’t have the negative emotions that drive poor behavior. Children who trust and respect their parents want to make good choices. Telling children that they’re on the naughty list makes them feel like they’re bad people, and those who believe they are bad will act accordingly. Let’s drop the “naughty or nice” routine and allow our children to feel the joy of Christmas.

Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of multiple books including Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of two boys. 


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