I love Christmas so, so much.
And yet – I have so many complicated feelings about the Santa Claus thing.
Last year, I wrote a post called How To Be Santa – Part 1. It was mainly about the adult milestone of realizing that every family handles The Santa Claus Thing differently – when he comes, whether he brings all the gifts or just one or two, etc. Tamara and I talked a lot about that once we became parents and came up with a plan for our own family.
For this post, I want to focus in a little about the concerns I have with The Whole Deal With Santa Claus. When I’m done with my concerns, I’ll explain why I’m still #TeamSanta and how we talk about the phenomenon with our kids.
And before I share my thoughts, I want to be clear: I think every person and family in the world should do whatever the heck they want related to the holidays. WHATEVER THEY WANT. These are MY thoughts, and they’re not intended to be a judgment on anyone else. For me, this is like when you spot problematic details in a beloved TV show and you point them out – like noting the impossibility of Monica and Rachel renting such an amazing apartment on Friends on the salaries of a chef and a waitress. You can point out that detail without passing judgment on anyone who watches Friends. And everyone should watch Friends because it’s the greatest thing ever and one of my favorite TV shows of all time. But, I digress.
My major concerns with The Whole Deal With Santa Claus are:
- use of Santa Claus as temporary disciplinary method;
- the naughty/nice list; and,
- the economic disparity of the Santa experience.
Problem # 1: the use of Santa as a temporary disciplinary method.
This drives me nutty, and it’s because I’m a behaviorist. I have strong feelings about behavior modification, and one of my most fundamental rules as a parent is: Don’t make any threats that you are not fully prepared to carry out. If you’re out as a family for a fun activity, are you really going to make everyone go home if your preschooler doesn’t finish his sandwich? I’m not – so I don’t make that threat. I try to avoid threats completely, but I fail at this over and over. However, I am pretty successful with making sure my threats are actually things I’d follow through with in the situation, because this is something I believe strongly in my home life and at work.
There are so many times when I hear parents use Santa as a motivator/threat during the holiday season, and it’s totally fine – except that I always question if the threat is legit. Are you really saying that Santa’s not going to bring any or many toys on Christmas morning if your kid doesn’t improve their behavior? Because I’m skeptical. I think this threat is used as a temporary behavioral technique, and if you’re not really going to throw toys away ahead of Christmas, then I think you should avoid this tactic. Also – don’t we want our kids to be good so that they’re just good human beings? Not just so that some judgy guy who lives at the North Pole gives us a bounty of presents?
I’m in the trenches of parenting young kids right now, and I seriously mean no judgment on anyone who uses this tactic. Keeping young kids alive and well and not clawing each other’s eyes out is an art and a talent and damn near impossible, so do WHATEVER you need to do. But for logical and behavioral reasons, I formally object to the use of Santa as disciplinary means.
Problem # 2: the naughty/nice list.
What does it mean, to be on the naughty list or the nice list?
Are there kids who are just *bad* all the time? I really don’t think so, and I’ve worked with some tough kids. We are all a result of our experiences, and if there’s a kid who is anywhere close to 100% naughty, then I’m betting that there’s trauma and/or ineffective parenting in their story.
Am I overthinking it? Honestly, I don’t think I am. Literally, we tell kids that Santa makes a list – categorizing who is naughty and who is nice. This does not line up with the language I use with my kids around behavior. We make choices, all day every day, and we want to make choices that are good rather than bad. Hitting your brother? Bad choice. Dumping out all the Legos when I told you not to? Bad choice. That doesn’t mean the kid making the choice is bad, and it doesn’t prevent him from making a good choice at the next opportunity.
I’ll explain how we talk to our boys about Santa (because we do!) below, but to be clear – there is no talk of lists, naughtiness, or niceness in our Christmas story.
Problem # 3: the economic disparity of the Santa experience.
How do we explain, in our Santa story, why certain kids don’t receive presents or don’t receive as many presents on Christmas morning? (I haven’t even delved into the religious aspect of this, which always plagued me as a kid. If Santa brings gifts to all kids, wouldn’t he just bring some to the kids who were Jewish, even if they don’t celebrate Christmas? But, I digress yet again.)
There is sometimes a weird element connecting the naughty/nice thing with the amount of gifts underneath the Christmas tree. Not everyone utilizes this, but some do, and it really rubs me the wrong way. Are the kids supposed to imagine that when they are naughty, present #3 or #7 or # 20 is removed from the pile under the tree? Like, a present less for every naughty deed committed? Does that mean the kid with the highest number of presents (or, more likely, the highest cash value amount of presents) was the *nicest* kid this year? What happens when the kids go into school on January 4th and start chit-chatting, and your kid finds out that another kid got a toy that your family chose not to purchase? What conclusions do they draw, in that impressionable and imaginative brain of theirs?
When I was a kid, my family always “adopted” a few children or a family at Christmastime. There was an angel tree at our Church, and you removed an ornament that had written on it the name and age of the child you’d be buying for. My mother would let me pick, and I remember studying names carefully and usually choosing a child close to my own age, because their gifts sounded like the most fun to buy.
I don’t remember a cognitive moment when my brain recognized the switch, the disparity. How old are kids when that happens, I wonder? You’re 3 and 4 and 5 years old, and you try to be really good so that Santa brings you gifts. You assume (or are taught) that Santa brings gifts to all children who are good. Then, somewhere around 6 to 10 years old, you learn that your parents buy your presents, and that some kids don’t have any presents on Christmas morning, and you realize that this is why the angel tree exists – so that families who have more resources can adopt a child so that they can experience the joy of receiving a present on Christmas morning.
When we don’t explain things to kids, they fill in the blanks all on their own, often in ways we wouldn’t expect. I don’t like thinking about kids comparing their Christmas morning reports and imagining that they are less good than their peers whose families are wealthier. I also don’t like pretending that every kid in the world gets gifts from Santa, since that’s not the case.
All of that said – Edgar is excitedly awaiting Christmas Eve. Every morning for the past week, he’s checked his stocking. (I think he’s wondering if Santa ever makes a surprise early visit.) He knows that on Christmas Eve, Santa will fill our stockings with small treats and treasures. And I like it; I like that there’s magic and mystery to the holiday season. And here’s why I’m okay with it:
- There is absolutely no reference to a naughty/nice list. If we run into a reference in a book or movie, I correct it and explain that all children are good and Santa brings toys and gifts to children around the world because he wants to spread love and joy around the world.
- Since there’s no list, there’s no discipline associated with Santa. You don’t have to be extra good during this month of the year, and it’s not any more important to make good choices in December than it is in May and August.
- When Edgar is 6 or 7 or 15 and asks me what the real deal is with Santa, I’ll tell him: “The holiday season is magical. It’s a time of year when people are extra-motivated to provide mutual aid to others, to show love to their loved ones, and to spread joy and cheer. THAT is what Santa is – that special magic. Santa filled your stockings. Santa tries to find families who benefit from support and offer them assistance every December. And now that you’re in on the secret – it’s your job to find ways to be Santa, every December, every holiday season – really, whenever you get the chance.” Every time I use the S-word, I keep that eventual explanation in mind.
So really, I love the Santa thing. We should provide mutual aid and spread love and cheer all year long – but I have zero problem with the fact that we as a society seem to have more to give during this season. I’m happy to share the magic of the Santa story with my little ones – though modified so that it can be reconciled with this overthinking Christmas brain o’ mine.