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Don’t Lay It On Santa!

November 2016

The holidays are a stressful time! Preparing for visits with family, buying gifts for the holidays, and worrying about finances to pay for said gifts are all big stressors. On top of that, as we approach the holiday season our children seem increasingly wound up and out of control. Go figure!

Many parents are tempted to use the lure of presents to get their children to behave better during this tough time of year. Threats like, “If you don’t behave, then Santa won’t bring you any presents!” are quite common, even among wonderful parents who are normally very supportive and loving with their sometimes-naughty children.

Children will always be naughty sometimes, which means that they always need parents who are willing to be effective disciplinarians. Santa, his partner the “Elf on the shelf”, and other holiday gift-givers are only around for holidays and birthdays. If you give them disciplinary authority, you are undermining yourself as the primary disciplinarian of your child. Why would you do that?

It is understandable that during this time of stress and increased frequency of naughtiness, you might be tempted to take a break from being a parent and put it all on Santa. Lots of parents have talked to me about how great the “Elf on a Shelf” has been to supervise and curtail naughty deeds. However, using holiday figures to quell bad behavior will only make things worse in the long run.

1) You will get your kids all upset over worrying whether or not they will get any presents for the holidays. When they are upset and anxious, their behavior will always be worse.

2) You have established a consequence that is happening so far into the future that most children won’t be able to change their behavior now for fear of what will happen weeks from now. The more delayed a consequence is, the less effective it will be.

3) You know you aren’t prepared to follow through with this threat! If you really didn’t get any presents for your children for the holidays (if your holidays typically involve presents) you would feel rotten – as well you should. Not following through with consequences teaches your children that, actually, you don’t mean anything that you say and they really don’t need to listen to you.

4) If you have stooped so far as to threaten loss of gifts as a consequence for bad behavior, you are likely to attempt to use this consequence for many behaviors up until the culmination of the holiday season. At some point, when your child actually believes you, the threat loses its power to control behavior. After all, if you’ve already told them they won’t get any gifts then why should they put the effort into better behavior?

5) Loss of gifts is quickly interpreted as a loss of love. We don’t give gifts during the holidays because our children are so well-behaved throughout the year. We give them gifts because we love them and want to make them happy. Conversely, if we tell them that they will not get any gifts because of their bad behavior, this is likely to be interpreted as meaning that we don’t love them and we want to make them miserable. No matter how frustrating your child’s behavior is, you always want them to know that you love them and you are looking out for their best interests.

6) Once the holiday season is over, who will handle the discipline? Having undermined your own authority by giving it away to the Elf on the Shelf and Santa Claus, re-establishing yourself as someone who is in charge of consequences could be quite a challenge.

The moral of this holiday story is, “Don’t put it all on Santa!” Do not threaten loss of gifts as a consequence for bad behavior. It’s just a really bad idea. Instead, use logical consequences that are meaningful (i.e. your child doesn’t like them), reasonable (i.e. commensurate with the severity of the behavior), and as immediate as possible. At the same time, make sure to remind, encourage, and recognize when your child is doing the things you want him or her to do. In fact, do this about three times more often than the statements you might make about consequences for bad behavior.

During the holidays, it is important to remember what your priorities are as a family. Spend quality time together and be alert to opportunities to appreciate one another’s positive qualities. Talk about what the holiday spirit really means, and why we give gifts to one another (if that is what your family does). Then act in accordance with the spirit of the holidays by modeling the love and appreciation that we want to engender in others around us, especially in our children.

Dr. Teri Bullis, Ph.D., BCBAI believe that every parent I’ve ever worked with loves their child and is doing the very best that they can. But while parenting is the toughest job anyone will ever have, children don’t come with a “how to” manual. I can provide those “how to” directions, tailored for your unique child and family situation.

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