Parents, Stop Bribing Your Children with Christmas!

November and December herald a rising trend in the arsenal of parenting weapons. As Christmas looms parents increasingly seek to control the behaviour of their children through the threat of Santa and his Elves and manufacturers and marketeers increasingly profit from their desperation. Elf on the Shelf, personalised letters and videos telling children they will only get presents if they “are good”, telephone calls, videos and phone apps threaten to report children to Father Christmas if they have been naughty and tell them they must do better if they wish to receive presents. The magic of Christmas is increasingly overshadowed by the constant undercurrent of behaviour surveillance and threats of a present free Christmas if children don’t behave.

Many parents buy into this. Only today I heard a mother telling her daughter “Santa won’t bring you any presents if you don’t stop tantruming”. Words uttered frequently at this time of year.

I say, enough. Enough with the threats, the surveillance and the bribes. Not only are they highly ineffective parenting methods, but we run the very real risk of scaring our children with these mythological ‘all seeing’ creatures. Where is the magic in that?

All children are ‘good’. What most believe to be ‘bad behaviour’ is not indicative of a naughty child. Behaviour that we do not like as adults does not indicate that the child is not motivated to do better. On the contrary it indicates that the child is usually behaving in the only manner in which they are capable of according to their level of emotional and intellectual development. Most children would rather they didn’t misbehave too. They don’t need any motivation to not misbehave, whether that comes in the bribe of “I’ll buy you XYZ for Christmas if you behave”, or in the threat of punishment of “Santa won’t bring you any presents if you don’t stop it”. Simply, misbehaving and all the uncomfortable, uncontrollable and messy emotions and feelings that accompany it usually makes children feel just as crappy as their parents, if not more so. They are already motivated to behave, they intrinsically want to ‘be good’.

Offering bribes of more Christmas presents won’t make a child’s drive to behave any stronger. Similarly threats of less, or no, presents won’t motivate them any more. If they are misbehaving, the issue is either that they cannot behave better, either because of their age, their level of brain development or their capabilities of regulating their emotions and drives or that they are in an environment that is triggering the negative behaviour.

The key to changing ‘misbehaviour’ is to reset expectations, help to develop regulation and social skills and keep them away from places and people who trigger the unwanted behaviour. Imagine how upsetting it must be for a child who already wants to be good, but is incapable of being so, to be threatened with losing Christmas presents? The motivation is already there, but without the skills necessary to ‘do better’ they are totally and utterly helpless. Losing presents is therefore inevitable. How is this meant to help? In most cases it will actually make the behaviour worse as the child gives up, knowing they can’t do better. Their self esteem (which is usually pretty low already) plummets and their behaviour often regresses even more.

Imagine how it feels to be young and threatened by an ‘ever watching’ array of mythical beings. Is it any wonder children cry when sat on Santa’s knee? The judgemental old man who despatches elves around the world to spy on children to see if they are worthy of having his gifts bestowed on them. Those elves who “see everything” and are “always watching”. That’s pretty scary already without adding a demonic looking shelf sitting elf into the mixture.

On the subject of said elf, what about the example he himself sets? He is allowed to get up to all sorts of mischief and mayhem, most of which would get a child swiftly added to Santa’s ‘naughty list’. How confusing must it be for children to watch the elf doing all sorts of things they are never allowed to do knowing if they set one foot wrong that he will go scurrying back to Santa to tell on them. Hypocritical much? Many parents think this is “just a bit of harmless fun” and it might be, if it didn’t send a very strong and a distinctly un-fun message to children.

elf on the shelf, naughty elf

Of course, come January the threat of Santa lessens dramatically. One would hope the Christmas bribery would end there, however I have heard of plenty of parents who threaten to call Santa to get him to take their presents back. If that fails there is always the Easter Bunny or the ever present Tooth Fairy. Both of whom are certainly used to their fair share of supernatural bribery.

The answer to ‘behavioural problems’ is to step outside of the commercial festive frenzy and ditch the hypocritical spying elf. Write to Santa if you want your child to believe, but thank him for seeing the good in all children. Ask your child to write a list of what they are proud of this year about themselves and leave the words ‘good’ and ‘naughty’ out of it completely. If you are visiting a Father Christmas, quickly have a word with one of his helpers before you visit and ask him or her to have a quick word with Santa to let him know that you don’t want him to ask your child if they have been good this year. If you want to play with an Elf, first check that the idea of a creature coming to life in the house every night is not one that will scare your child (how can we tell them monsters aren’t real while at the same time pretending a naughty elf is?) and then make sure that they do not do anything that your child is not allowed to do. Skip any accompanying books, cards or stickers and just enjoy the festive fun.

Merry Christmas!


Note: I have used the terms Santa and Father Christmas interchangeably. In the UK we call Santa Father Christmas!

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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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