How To Be Santa – Part 2

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:

  1. use of Santa Claus as temporary disciplinary method; 
  2. the naughty/nice list; and,
  3. 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.

Whew. Onward.

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. 

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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.

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What Kind Of Mom Do I Want To Be?

Last summer, I spent a lot of time reading and listening to books about parenting. This was not a proactive endeavor; it was 100% reactive. Jonas wasn’t sleeping through the night and Edgar was, you know, being a three-year-old. So I did what I always do when I have a problem I don’t know how to solve: I looked for a book to help me out.

SO. MANY. BOOKS. And they were all helpful in their own ways; I took tips and techniques away from them all. One thing I’ve noticed about me and Tamara is – we’re a sort in-between when it comes to our parenting strategies. We have friends who are super into discipline and compliance, friends who are 100% into Waldorf or Montessori or attachment parenting, friends who are extremely focused on education and learning.

And the thing about us is – we’re a lot of different things. We let our babies cry at night – a little. We don’t co-sleep. We allow a lot of free play and open-ended activities, but we – particularly me – also enjoy doing activities or projects that are a little more structured. We didn’t do any screen time until Edgar was 3, and since then we’ve done just a little. (More since the coronavirus pandemic started, for sure!)

So there’s not one philosophy or style for us, and I think that’s probably true for most parents. We’re all blending different values and principles and trying to come up with rules and routines and rituals that work for us. AND, if we’re doing it with a partner, we’re having to compromise periodically when we’re not on the same page.

But as I read through these books, and reflected on the different ways there are to be a parent, one question kept coming up for me:

What kind of a parent do I want to be?

There are so many options, and you don’t have to just pick one. You can be hands-off or hands-on. You can be laidback or structured. When I really zeroed in on the kind of parent I want to be, I came up with three words, and two of them are in the title of this blog.

The three words that best describe the kind of mom I want to be are playful, peaceful, and present.

I want to be playful and silly with my kids. I want to turn things into a game whenever I can. (A highly recommended strategy to enhance cooperation in many of the parenting books I read.)

I want to be peaceful. I want to stay calm, for my own well-being – it does not feel good to get caught up in a toddler’s emotional storm. And I want to be a calm center for my kids – a “place” they can come to get reoriented when they’re feeling dysregulated.

I want to be present. Oh, man, is this hard in the age of cell phones! I want to be fully present for my boys; I want them to have my full attention, and I want to teach them to give their full attention to everything they do. Especially the important things.

Playful. Peaceful. Present.

I’m working from home with my two boys for the foreseeable future. I need these words. May they become my mantra.

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balance · parenting

Setting The Tone For The Work Week

Ever since I started working from home with my boys (ages 1 and 3) home with me, the first morning of the work week has been a clusterfreak. (Keepin’ it PG-13 on here!)

I think it’s a combination of factors that are causing the havoc.

  1. I don’t WANT to “go to work.” (Imagine that said in the whiniest kid voice possible!) I want to just play with my kiddos. I definitely prefer working from home to having to be away from them all day, but really, I’d love to just play and be silly with them all day long.
  2. I don’t always have a plan for the day, and I think our days go best when I have a plan. They don’t have to know what it is. The plan doesn’t even need to be executed well! It doesn’t matter if they do the awesome craft activity; it just matters that I’ve thought through our day with some intention and have a few activities or projects up my sleeve.
  3. I sometimes have a Zoom meeting first thing Monday morning (like 8 a.m.), and that seems to set us off on the wrong foot immediately. We can’t go outside or be on a hike while I have a meeting; they usually are just playing (and not understanding why I’m not paying attention to them) or watching a show (which seems to just set the wrong tone for the rest of the morning).

Pretty much every day, I try to get the boys in the car to go for a hike right after breakfast. There are days when I feel lazy about this, or when the weather’s not great,  and the hike doesn’t happen. And that’s okay!

But I am going to start putting forth a special effort to make Mondays a good and positive day for us. That means a hike as early in the day as we can, possibly followed by a treat (Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru is an option), and a few special activities planned for the day. My theory is that I need to devote a lot of energy and creativity to the FIRST day of the week. If Tuesday or Wednesday end up being a little lazier or less creative – well, at least we’ve eased into the week with a good day already. My mood, as the parent, really is a big factor in how our days go. And I am better able to have the patience and energy to get through a tough day when I have the confidence of a good day already.

I am working really hard at my job – but the most important thing to me right now is being a present, playful, and peaceful person for my kids. I am hoping that this Monday will be a day that sets a nice tone for the rest of the “work week.” But if not? Then TUESDAY will be the new Monday. And it will all be okay.

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books + reading · parenting

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen – Takeaways

A few months ago, I read How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. I liked it a lot. It’s so easy, when you’re in the middle of parenting little kids, to forget your intentions and just lecture or yell or get frustrated.

I have a bunch of takeaways, and I think I’ll often refer

Takeaway # 1: Try it out on yourself. If you were having a lousy day, how would you feel or respond if someone acted the way you are acting toward your kid? How would you feel if someone:

    1. denied your feelings? (It’s not that bad. You love this dinner. You don’t hate school.)
    2. gave you advice or a lecture?
    3. compared you with another kid?
    4. asked a bunch of questions? (Why did you do that when you know you shouldn’t?)

Probably not good, right?  Try it out on yourself and see how it feels. Then check in with  yourself and make sure you’re parenting the way you want to.

Takeaway # 2: Acknowledge feelings with words.

Takeaway # 3: All feelings can be accepted. Some actions must be limited. (I can see you’re angry. I can’t let you hit me.)

Takeaway # 4: Sit on those “buts.” Say, “The problem is…” instead. Saying but indicates, I hear how you feel and now I’ll tell you why that feeling is wrong. The problem is suggests that there’s a problem that can be solved without sweeping away the feeling. Also, you can use, “Even though you know…” (You don’t want to leave the playground. The problem is, it’s almost dinnertime.) (Even though you know you have to wash your hands after you use the potty, you really wish you didn’t have to so that you could get back to playing with trucks.)

Takeaway # 5: Acknowledge feelings with writing or drawing. (Write or draw how they feel.)

Takeaway # 6: Give in fantasy what you can’t give in reality. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have candy every day?”

Takeaway # 7: Resist the urge to ask questions of a disturbed child. (I’m really good at this when it comes to my students, but not with my own kids. I constantly ask my three-year-old why he did things. Spoiler alert: usually, he doesn’t know why.)

Takeaway # 8: FOR COOPERATION:

  1. Be playful. (Make inanimate objects talk. Turn a task into a goal (time them) or a game. Talk in funny voices. Freeze like an iceberg. Avoid lava quicksand (when you’re trying to walk somewhere). Give them an energy pill that makes them clean up really fast. Make up different characters – Dress Up Ninja Mommy. Pretend you’re flying. Be an animal – what animal should we be on our way up the stairs today?
  2. Offer a choice. Do you want to skip to the car or take giant steps? Do you want your bath with boats or bubbles? Do you want to put your pajamas on the regular way or inside out? What else could you cut?

That’s all I have for now, but there’s way more. I ended up buying a copy of the book for future reference. Highly recommend.

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books + reading · parenting

How To Be A Peaceful Parent

I read a book a while ago called Peaceful Parent Happy Kids by Dr. Laura Markham. I listened to it during the first week of the school year.

I reached for this book because I found myself becoming impatient and snappy with Edgar. When I ponder about the kind of mom I want to be, I think of three words: peaceful, playful, and present. So this book seemed like it would be a wonderful resource.

The book focuses on three main things: self-regulation for parents, connecting with your child, and coaching rather than controlling.

One of my favorite takeaways from this book is the idea of Special Time with your child. The book describes Special Time as a period (around 15 minutes) of completely focused play with your child, and suggests alternating between parent and child for activity choice. Ever since Jonas came home, I’ve noticed how challenging it is to manage life with two kids – particularly play time with two kids. It’s been difficult to play with Edgar in a focused and intentional way with Jonas trying to climb onto the kitchen table and then jump off. After reading about Special Time, I’ve been using Jonas’s morning nap time as a time to engage Edgar in play that’s just for him. Sometimes I just devote my full attention to him and let him pick what we play; sometimes I facilitate a crafty activity that would be impossible to do if Jonas were with us, like painting or jewelry making. It’s been really sweet and wonderful for both of us.

One of the other concepts in the book that I really like was the idea of natural or logical consequences instead of punishment. Dr. Markham offers these six tips for effective consequences:

  1. Plan.
  2. Be consistent.
  3. Focus on what you control.
  4. Be matter of fact.
  5. Accept your limits.
  6. Use “I” not “you” statements.

Here are my other takeaways, in no particular order:

  • Be calm, kind, and patient. I mean, duh? But in real life, this is really, really hard!
  • Give fewer warnings and have more follow through. I love this. Sometimes I give so many warnings that by the time I follow through on a “consequence,” I’m way too frustrated to follow through with a calm and loving voice.
  • Engage in rough housing or giggly play so that your child can release stress. 
  • Make things into a game whenever you can. It’s time for bed, but let’s take a horsey ride to get there!
  • Have child-directed play every day.
  • Give hugs and maintain the connection!
  • Look out for situations you can prevent.
  • Have regular end of day feelings talk and gratitude practice.
  • When we stay calm, we calm the situation down.
  • You can break a cycle. You can press a restart button anytime!
  • Figure out why you’re getting angry. Sometimes, I get super frustrated with Edgar, and then I realize that I’m frustrated because I’m tired or hungry. Sometimes I realize it’s because I’m beating myself up for not being better at some aspect of being a mom. Sometimes I realize it’s because I want him to be able to do something independently that he just can’t do yet. When I realize why I’m getting angry, I can either plan around it, fix it, or just allow that insight to help me with increasing my ability to accept the situation and be patient.
  • Wait before disciplining. You do THIS while I think about this.
  • STOP YELLING. If you find yourself angry or yelling, drop it immediately! Kids can’t learn if you’re yelling and they’re scared and insecure.
  • Ask yourself – when I’m losing my patience and my temper – what thought am I having?
  • Tell yourself and your kid – “We got this.”
  • If you are resolving to be more patient, it’s a sign that your cup isn’t full enough to begin with. What can you do to increase your capacity and energy when you’re NOT around your kids?
  • Don’t leave or abandon him if he’s tantrumming – he needs you! This one is tricky for me. I like the idea – but Tamara and I usually make an exception for when Edgar’s kicking or hitting, since time away from us usually helps him to de-escalate during those moments.
  • Turn things into a game or a joke (while still enforcing the rules). I love this. Sometimes, I can sense when either Edger or I or both of us are headed in the direction of frustrated, and I can quickly come up with something silly to change the mood – like pretending that we’re washing our hands with maple syrup instead of soap. HILARIOUS to a three-year-old.
  • You don’t yell at a flower that’s not thriving – you water it! I am fairly firm and boundaried as a parent; I think it’s good for kids to have limits and structure. But I don’t think yelling is ever helpful, at least not for me – it just makes me feel bad and doesn’t seem to correct any behaviors. (Don’t get me wrong – I have moments when I yell!  Well, not yell, but raise my voice. But it’s never my intention.) Instead I believe in trying to find out what need is not being met, at the moments when I start to yell. Like, Edgar using ALLLLLLL the soap in the bottle to wash his hands – really, he often shows signs that he can’t wash his hands independently yet. He loves water play, and I think it’s just too tempting. So I need to stay with him during hand washing time. Annoying – but more helpful than yelling at him after the behavior happens!)

I loved this book. I’ll end with this bit: Dr. Markham writes that you, as parent, are your kid’s most trusted source for information about the world and himself. And that the parent is the kid’s secure base so that he can feel safe enough to explore the world.

That’s huge, impactful, and it makes a lot of sense to me. Reeeally hoping it helps me to keep my cool the next time Edgar fills the bathroom sink with soap, water, and cars and tells me that he made his own car wash. Fingers crossed!

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