As a child, this time of year was magic. The lights, the warmth, the giving, the smell of cinnamon and pine, and of course the big ol’ man in the red suit and all of his flying reindeer.
When I became a parent myself, I carried my family’s holiday traditions into our home. Watching my two sons play the role that my brother and I once played never fails to bring back the nostalgia of my youth.
One night while snuggled up with my boys reading a bedtime Christmas story, my four-year-old son asked, “Mom, I’m good, right?”
I had an idea where this was going, and responded, “Yes, who you are is good.”
My son continued, “And so I am never bad?”
“No,” I affirmed. “Who you are is love.” I explained to my son that who we are is separate from what we do. Mistakes are teaching moments, not a weakness or something to punish, and certainly not a measure of inner worth.
“Then why does the song say Santa will only come to see me if I am good?” I looked into my son’s big brown eyes and I saw him trying to make sense of it all.
When I paused to think about how I might respond, he began singing the words, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake. You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why ... Santa Claus is coming to town.”
I hugged my son tightly and listened to the words with my adult ears. They sounded different than I remembered them; the magic this jingle once held for me seemed a lot less magical.
I think every family has the right to find their own path to celebrating and carrying on traditions and I have zero problems with Santa or the Elf that lives on people’s shelves, but I do call to question how adults use these figures to manipulate our children.
When holiday rituals are used to speak the language of our children - aka imagination and play - then, to me, they are an opportunity for connection and magical thinking. Yet when they are used with the intent to steer a child’s behavior, they quickly become a form of punishment - a mixture of threats, bribes, and shame.
Our words matter, and when we play along with the notion that “you better not cry, and I’m telling you why” — aka you won’t get any presents — we are sending some pretty damaging messages to kids.
Here are just a few harmful messages these outdated traditions carry:
You are only good when you do good, and you are bad when you do bad.
When you misbehave, you are bad and you deserve be punished.
Mistakes are not allowed, especially if someone is watching.
It is unsafe to feel your feelings and crying is not allowed.
Using bribes, rewards, and punishments feel like one of those parenting practices best left in the past. I recognize that underneath all of these tactics is love. Yet, given the unspoken messages they send to kids, clearly some of our holiday songs and traditions need to be reconsidered.
When my children make a good decision or do something kind, I want it to be because they chose it, and it’s genuine. That feeling they get inside, the one that feels like they are smiling from the inside out - that is the reward. And when they mess up, there isn’t a punishment attached, but rather a potential to learn and grow a part of themselves. My role is to limit, yes, and to guide, but not with fear, shame and threats.
Using shame-free discipline doesn’t mean we are permissive or that we need to bury our boundaries in the snow. We can be respectful in our loving limits as we use the imagination of the season to teach, guide, and model for our children the true spirit of the holidays. Can Santa and the Elf On The Shelf get in on that action? I’m thinking yes.
Our children are human, and very early in their neurological development. At the same time they are rich in what we adults often lack. They pause to notice, they believe in things they cannot see, and they love unconditionally.
This holiday season, as parents and caregivers, we have an opportunity to inspire children with mindful words that remind them of the love they are - both when they feel good AND when they feel bad. Our children and their ability to experience unconventional love for themselves and others is the real gift of the season.