From Elf on the Shelf to phone apps like Santa Report, there is a whole arsenal of festive-themed merchandise and technology offering to help us encourage good behaviour in our children in the name of the big man in red. Not only are they often surprisingly effective, they promote the same kind of message that in all likeliness we ourselves were raised with. So where’s the harm? Two experts in child psychology and parenting techniques, Andalene Salvesen and Joanne Jewell, explain why you might want to rethink your strategy…
Be careful when talking about Santa Claus
Andalene: Christmas is only once a year – do you really want your children to listen once a year? Do you also want to teach them that they get presents every time they are “good”? And can you quantify good? Is it saying please and thank you without being prompted? Is it massaging mummy’s feet for three days some time in the month of December? Is it picking up your toys without complaining? Can you explain how long the good behaviour period is for? Is it 10 minutes every day for 7 days, or for the 24 days of December before Christmas day (and then what happens after that for the next 11 months?). So, if you can’t set clear boundaries to “reward” said behaviour, how can you expect your child to understand any parameters? Which obviously then means there are no parameters, which means they are going to get presents no matter how they behave, which means you are threatening and lying to your child – both ineffectual tools in parenting long term.
Joanne: It’s completely understandable that parents will use any tool at their disposal to gain cooperation from children, especially when it feels like it works and we wonder what harm can it do. However, when we use an external figure such as Father Christmas, a policeman or teacher to encourage our children’s cooperation or manage their behaviour, we are missing an opportunity to teach them how to cooperate with us, build internal motivation and emotional regulation. Young children benefit hugely from learning these skills as it helps them to learn to do things that they don’t want to.
How to keep the magic
Joanne: Different families have different beliefs; whatever your tradition is, it’s these traditions that make gatherings extra-special for children and teens. They provide our children with an identity, and this is just as important to your teenager as it is to your toddler, particularly if you are living away from home. A gift is something given with no expectation or strings attached, so to combine the idea of behaviour and gifts together is very confusing – to a young child who doesn’t understand anything other than natural consequences, the connection is meaningless and to an older child or teen who understands logical consequences, calling something a ‘gift’ and then making it dependent on good behaviour is illogical. At any age, to them it actually just feels like punishment. The best gift you can give them is your ‘presence’ rather than ‘presents’ – this is what they will remember in the years to come.
Andalene: Different cultures handle the festive season differently. Some people believe in telling children the more meaningful back stories of the celebration, while handling Santa as a “wink-wink- nudge-nudge” fictitious figure like the tooth fairy or a fun storybook character like Peter Pan. This helps children not to feel like they have been had when they find out one day that he doesn’t exist and realise their parents have been lying to them. Using this approach doesn’t have to take away the magic of Christmas. It can still be fun without lying to your child.
On the naughty list
Joanne: When we describe our child as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’ we are giving them a label – one that they may ultimately live up or down to. Toddlers and younger children aren’t able to differentiate between who they are and their behaviour, so describing a child as good or bad means that they view themselves as a person in this way and this is not helpful for their self-esteem. Either way, we are not teaching children that they get to choose their behaviour – they can feel ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but they still get to choose what they do next and this label does not teach that.
Andalene: I prefer to encourage using the term “you’re not listening” and “good listening” as opposed to good/bad boy, because naughty is saying who you are – a character assassination and name calling – where “you’re not listening” is merely stating what you have chosen to do. Parents need to focus on the message of “I love you no matter what you choose to do, but I will not accept that behaviour – it deserves a consequence to help you remember to make a better choice next time.”
Andalene: Clear rules and consequences of breaking those rules encourages self-confidence in children. This, coupled with consistency, gives them a safe haven to function from. However, rules without relationships cause rebellion; but relationships without rules cause confusion. The scale has to be balanced. Filling a child’s love tank is vital; but having no one in charge (or worse, having someone without wisdom in charge!) is disastrous.
Joanne: Whatever the age, the Mindful Parenting strategy is the same – make a choice to connect to your child first, whatever the behaviour, using empathy and listening to how they are feeling. Once you’ve done this then you will be able to redirect using logic, set boundaries and teach them how to behave in future. For younger children, connection is likely to include physical contact, and for an older child this may just mean eye contact – it will help them to develop this skill of connection to solve problems in all their relationships.
Joanne’s 4 top tips for the festive season:
- Give your child your presence, it’s the best present you can give them.
- Focus on seeing the holiday through your child’s eyes – you will get so much joy out of it and be able to empathise with them if they struggle to cope.
- Keep up self-care over the holiday alongside caring for your guests or family – it will make it all less stressful.
- Understand that younger children need more connection with you when life is busy and hectic, and older teens may need a break from family to connect with friends.
Andalene’s Christmas dos and don’ts
- Expect and implement peace in the home year round not just at Christmas.
- Give the gift of time together more than toys – build happy memories.
- First make your immediate family a priority, then your extended family, then your friends.
- Never bribe a child with gifts… they can turn around and use bribery on you! Rewarding a child is way more effective (after the fact – “you did so much good listening while we were shopping, let’s go home and play cards together”). Rather reward with memory-making activities, not sweets or toys
- Refrain from acting/being/speaking/disciplining differently just because its Christmas/people visiting, and so on. Children enjoy predictability and consistency.
- Don’t encourage a sense of entitlement by overindulging during the festive season, rather encourage the whole family to give away something special of theirs to the less fortunate.
Joanne Jewell, founder of Mindful Parenting in the UAE, is a child and adolescent counsellor and hosts regular workshops. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Andalene Salvesen, aka Supergranny, is a parenting coach and author of ‘A new child in five minutes’. She is available for private home visits, see www.munchkins.ae.
Images by Unsplash