If there’s one thing I’ve learned in four years of parenthood, it’s that there are some threats I'll definitely follow through on, but others simply cannot be enforced.
"If you don't eat any dinner, you'll get no dessert." I enforce the hell out of that.
"Continue fighting in the back seat and I’ll turn this car around." Yep, I just might.
"Keep calling your sister an ugly poopy face and Santa won’t come to our house." Eeehhhhh, nope.
I may be relatively new to parenting, as well as to the use of Santa as leverage for good behaviour, but I know this much: The Jolly Old Elf is coming regardless of how much my four year old talks back, or how often my toddler bites said four year old. That’s because I literally cannot fathom a scenario where my kids could behave so atrociously that Christmas would be straight up cancelled. I mean, come on.
My husband and I try really hard to stick to the consequences we dole out in the never-ending battle to maintain the upper hand. Often it’s a ban on Starbucks (my kids are half-sweet hot chocolate addicts), which scares them just as much as an early bedtime. Of course, no one's perfect; there are occasions where I toss out threats that I have little intention of keeping. For example, there's the occasional, “If you [naughty] one more time, it’s straight to bed for the rest of the night” (at 5 p.m.). Enforcing that would be worse than just dealing with the bad behaviour, but the idea of an early bedtime is scary enough that the threat usually holds power.
We’ve learned that failure to enforce consequences renders all future threats powerless. The power shifts to the cunning four year old, and that’s a tricky position to be in.
I’ve also come to see that discipline is more effective when consequences immediately follow, and are directly related to, the problem behaviour. The idea of withholding Christmas presents because food isn’t being finished is draconian. Kids may not know that word, but they get the concept.
But there’s an even bigger beef I have with the “Santa is watching you” threat: It’s the idea that the size of your haul is contingent in any way on how good you’ve been. The message being that good kids get lots of loot, naughty kids get bupkes, and kids whose parents are struggling to make rent this month (let alone put presents under the tree) get, well… See? Now it’s complicated.
It seems to me that leveraging Christmas for any reason runs counter to the very point of the holiday, which should be more about generosity, goodwill and love, and less about what’s under the tree, and why those presents arrived.
If my kids are behaving well out of greed for presents rather than because it’s just straight up the right thing to do, then I’ve not properly taught them what Christmas is really about, and I clearly need make them watch Scrooged.
The truth is, Christmas will happen every year, and in no way will it ever be contingent on how they behave. Especially at an age when dividing behaviour between “good” and “bad” fails to take into account the complexities of being little (that is, willful, spirited, impulsive, passionate and easily frustrated).
Lights will go up, cookies will be baked, stockings will be filled and presents will go under the tree. The kids may fight, whine, refuse meals, experiment with the “f” word or break my sunglasses, but Santa is a kind man and he understands how hard it can be to be small. And so he will always bring them presents.
Mommy may just not get them Starbucks.