Why Santa’s ‘Naughty-or-Nice’ list isn’t Nice, and What to Tell Your Kids Instead

In the final—and hectic—days before Christmas, it’s tempting to invoke Santa’s naughty-or-nice list to keep excitable kids in line. Unfortunately, as guest contributor Dr. Vanessa Lapointe explains, that list makes zero sense when you consider the developmental needs of children.

Imagine what it would be like to go to work every day knowing that some omnipotent power was monitoring your every move. Oh, the pressure to be perfect lest you be denied the promised year-end bonus!

Even as mature adults with fully formed neural networks making us capable of impulse control and self-regulation, needing to be constantly on our “A” game would be overwhelming.

Now apply the same idea to children. Throughout the year, and especially so during the holiday season, kids are thrust into the precise scenario described above for adults. Borrowing from years of tradition, children are reminded at every opportunity of Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. “Behave or else,” they are told. And now, the Elf on the Shelf has jumped on board to help parents with the dirty work of behaviour surveillance so Santa knows exactly where every child stands at every moment in terms of coal verses presents.

The naughty-or-nice list makes zero sense when considered in terms of the developmental needs of children. Consider that children’s brains are immature by design. They do not always have it within their capacity to manage their big emotions, quell their impulses, and make good choices.

Also consider that children need to experience adults as being both in charge and kind. This inspires children to do as they have been asked when they can. When an adult needs threats of coal or a creepy spying Elf to bring a child into line, this really just tips off the child that the adult isn’t actually in charge and isn’t being kind.

When children feel that their needs have not been understood, and further, that their parent cannot be counted on to do right by them, they will be unsettled down to their core. This, in turn, interferes with the integral relational connection parents have with their children. And all of this is what leads to threats of reporting back to Santa being more likely to cause an escalation in behavior rather than a vanquishing of it.

What should you do instead?

First, always remember that it is the parent’s job to come alongside the child in times of behavioral upset and act as a co-regulator. Through compassionate responding, a parent can literally reach into the neural networks of the developing brain and settle them. As this is repeated—over and over again on some days!!—the brain carves out the pathways necessary for emotional regulation and self-control.

Second, keep on with your different traditions that help make this time of year most magical. Just avoid tainting them with underlying threats of surveillance and consequences. Go ahead and have some fun with the Elf on the Shelf, but avoid talking about the elf as a spy. Bake some cookies for Santa, but do away with the notion that his generosity is contingent on good behavior.

And third, as your children become interested in giving gifts to those they love, have them focus on the true spirit of giving. What an experience for children to hold the joy of another in their mind’s eye as they carefully select or craft that special something for them!

The bottom line is that the children are meant to be children. Our job as parents is to ensure we do not fall into the trap of sullying the holidays in pursuit of the impossible goal of good behavior. Instead, shine the light brightly on the true spirit of the season. THIS, afterall, is the ultimate gift to be given to a child!

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Vanessa LaPointe

About Vanessa LaPointe

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe is an author, parenting expert, and registered psychologist (British Columbia #1856) who has been supporting families and children for more than fifteen years. Author of Discipline without Damage: How to get your kids to behave without messing them up, a regularly invited media guest and contributor, educator and speaker, a Huffington Post Parent blogger, and a consultant to research projects and various organizations promoting emotional health and development, Dr. Vanessa is known for bringing a sense of nurturing understanding and humanity to all of her work. The founder of The Wishing Star Developmental Clinic, Dr. Vanessa continues to work in her private practice at The Wishing Star, and has previous experience in a variety of settings, including the British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development and the school system. View all posts by