I recently heard a mother ask for advice on what to do about gifts from Santa, as her 6-year-old has been naughty all year, and she felt that presents from him would be rewarding bad behaviour. This sparked a bit of a debate about whether or not withholding Christmas gifts was an acceptable form of behaviour management.
The general consensus was that it was not an acceptable form, with a few exceptional stories about loved ones who received no gifts one year and “straightened up their act.” But I couldn’t help but think about how many parents use the threat of no presents as a way to elicit good behaviour around the holidays. Most don’t follow through with it, but the possibility is always there.
I don’t for a second judge parents who talk about Santa watching. That is part of the lore of Santa, that he sorts kids into naughty and nice lists, and asks if you have been good this year. There is even a song about it which, much like “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, is super catchy until you realize how creepy and stalkerish the lyrics are. “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town.”
He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, now climb on his lap, tell him you’ve been good, and ask him to bring you a Hatchimal.
It’s a little conflicting.
I choose to leave behaviour out of Christmas in our family. I view it as a right in our house. Just as I would never refuse to say I love you or threaten to withhold love, no matter what my child did, I don’t threaten to take away Christmas. I want Christmas to be solely about joy, and something my children can look forward to unconditionally, without feeling they must earn it. Fear not, young ones, you can be a jerk and still get Christmas as usual. This does not mean, of course, there aren’t other consequences for poor choices. It just means that Christmas is not one of them. It also doesn’t mean that my children are guaranteed to be spoiled with presents—we do presents modestly—but what they receive is theirs regardless of how their December goes.
We have an Elf, it’s true. An original one at that, before they softened the face to be less Stephen King-worthy. If we had done the Elf the way you are supposed to, as outlined in the book, it would still be in pristine condition and probably worth something someday. As it stands, our Elf is a filthy mess, who is missing his hat and full of felt pills. Our Elf is played with and well-loved, and he doesn’t spy on the kids. They just love each other and are great friends. Initially, my son did believe the Elf was reporting his behaviour to Santa (the book said so after all) but after I saw the anxiety it caused him, and how it made him guarded around the Elf, I decided it wasn’t worth the mild improvement in behaviour. Seeing the pure joy he has gotten out of being genuine, unconditional friends with the Elf has been much more beneficial.
I don’t think it is necessarily wrong to use Christmas to encourage good behaviour. I don’t think it’s harmful, or that believing they need to behave well to get on the Nice List will cause lasting stress or pathology to a child. I sincerely do not judge parents who do this (and I judge everything). It just isn’t for me and my family.
There are so few things in this world that are unconditionally joyful, and I want my children to know that it will be there for them, period, in some form.
When asked by a mall Santa what he would like for Christmas this year, my 8-year-old said, “A nice Christmas with my family.” He gets it. It isn’t about presents, it isn’t about being good. It’s about unconditional love.
This post originally appeared on BabyPost.com