Should You Tell Kids to Be Good Because Santa is Watching?

Don't threaten your child with being on Santa's naughty list.
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For parents who enjoy keeping kids in line with the “You’d better be good because Santa’s watching” approach, Thanksgiving seems to be the time where the threat starts to take effect. The fear of a lump of coal in the stocking, along with the reminders of “you won’t get any presents this year,” may be used for offenses ranging from physical aggression to non-compliance.

Although the reminder that Santa “knows when you’ve been sleeping,” and he “knows when you’re awake,” has been used for generations, the spying tactics have changed over the years.

If the threat of Santa’s mysterious abilities to watch a child’s every move from afar wasn’t creepy enough, now Santa has scouts who help him keep track of who belongs on the naughty list. The Elf on a Shelf’s constant surveillance serves as a physical reminder to children that Santa will know if they’ve been good or bad this year.

Clearly, the stress of the holidays can lead many kids to act out even more than usual. And although many parents threaten there won’t be any presents if a child’s behavior doesn’t improve, very few parents follow through with that threat.

And while the threat of being on Santa's naughty list may remind some kids to behave, empty threats certainly doesn’t work for the vast majority. So is threatening to cancel Christmas a sound parenting tactic?

The Problems with Using Christmas as a Motivator

Getting kids motivated to behave for a stranger—versus for you— is an interesting concept.

Saying, “Santa wants you to be good,” instead of, “I want you to be good,” makes it sound like your child should care more about Santa’s opinion than your's. 

Empty threats are never a helpful parenting practice. Nagging your child about his behavior and warning him he won’t get any presents could actually damage your credibility.

When Santa delivers presents—regardless of previous misbehavior—your child will assume you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Clearly, many kids aren’t concerned with what’s happening tomorrow, nonetheless a few weeks from now. So the threat of not getting presents days or weeks into the future may not be much of a deterrent.

Additionally, the idea that you have to “be good,” is a vague concept. It leaves many kids wondering, “How good do I actually have to be?” It also raises the question, what does “being good” really mean? You and your child may have very different opinions about what qualifies as “good.” 

Alternatives to the “Naughty List”

The holiday season is often filled with family time, sugary treats, and changes to the usual routines. And while those things can be fun, they can also be stressful for children. That's why increased behavior problems during the holidays are fairly common.

Reminding kids to behave so their names appear on the "nice list" can be all in good fun. But it’s not likely to be an effective long-term solution for managing behavior.

So rather than threaten to take away Christmas and blaming it on the guy in the big red suit, consider these tips:

  • Kids do best when they have an immediate consequence for their misbehavior. So if your child hits his brother, an immediate time-out will be much more effective than the threat of “Santa’s watching.”
  • Kids need specific goals. Rather than aiming to “be good,” a child is more likely to respond to a goal like “use kind words only,” or “use only gentle touches with the dog.”
  • Reward systems serve as a great motivator. Set up a sticker chart or a token economy system  that allows your child to earn immediate rewards for specific behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement is much more effective than threats. Use praise generously to point out good behavior and provide plenty of positive attention.
  • Telling a child he’s on the “naughty list” isn’t likely to do much for his self-worth. Kids behave best when they feel good about themselves. Use discipline strategies that promote healthy self-esteem.
  • Work on behavior problems all year long. If you’re concerned about your child being “ungrateful” or spoiled, cancelling Christmas one time isn’t likely to change your child’s attitude. Instead, work on fostering gratitude every day of the year in addition to preventing the holidays from being all about the gifts.

If you’re going to use the Elf on a Shelf and reminders about the “naughty list,” use it in good fun, not as a main discipline strategy. After all, the holiday season is short and you need to be armed with effective discipline strategies long after the presents have been opened. Focus on teaching your child to behave because it’s the respectful thing to do, not because he won’t get rewarded on Christmas.

Sources

HealthyChildren.org: The ABC System.

Nevin JA, Mandell C. Comparing positive and negative reinforcement: A fantasy experimentJournal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 2017;107(1):34-38.

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