My four-and-a-half-year-old has recently become VERY excited about Christmas. Yes, it is the end of August, and yes, I’ve explained that the big day is still four months away. No matter – he’s making big plans. He has already gone through the cookie cutter bin to ensure that we have the proper shapes for Christmas cookies; he’s made sure that Dad knows what Mom wants for Christmas (I’m thinking I should add diamond earrings to that list); and he’s plotting his letter to Santa containing his own Christmas wishes.
All the talk about Santa got the wheels turning in my head, and I’ll admit that I’ve played the Santa card a couple of times, as in, “Santa can see how you are behaving (or not, as the case may be) right now.” I’ve stopped short of saying that Santa won’t bring him anything if he doesn’t behave, because let’s face it, that’s not going to happen. Anyone who could follow through with that consequence for misbehavior is a much stricter disciplinarian than I. But, in moments of frustration and/or desperation, it’s tempting to remind my son that there’s a third party involved here, one who comes bearing gifts and candy canes for all the good little boys and girls.
Which brings me to my personal issue with the word “good.” It’s so black and white, so absolute; an impossible standard to live up to. I’m always careful, even in the midst of my most emotionally charged interactions with my boys, to never say that they are “bad boys.” On the flip side, I’ve also never gotten into the habit of saying “good boy” when they do right. It reminds me of the way I would speak to a dog, not a person; but more importantly, I want them to know and to believe that they are good. They are good in the way that all of us decent, yet flawed, human beings are good. It’s not something that is conditional on their behavior that day or that particular moment.
My son has now taken to asking, “Will Santa still bring me presents if I don’t start listening/go to bed right now/stop hitting my brother?” Since I can’t honestly say “no,” I think playing the Santa card is not going to be an effective discipline strategy. Besides, like any parent, I would like for him to learn right from wrong and want to behave for the sake of it – because he respects me and his dad, not because of the threat that he might not get presents. And as an extension of that, I want him to enjoy the other things that Christmas is about, like spending time with family, rather than the gifts becoming the be-all and end-all.
Telling him that he has to be “good” or Santa won’t visit him is not only too trite, but it also implies that the only reason to do right is to get stuff. Not the message I want to send. So, I’ll relegate the Santa card to the back of the parenting techniques closet, though I can’t absolutely promise that I won’t use it anyway in a desperate moment, since it’s just as impossible for us moms to be “good” all the time as it is for our children.
Have you ever played the Santa card to get your kids to behave?