When it comes to Christmas, I believe we must get back to basics, and that starts with respecting children.
Children are a marketer's dream during Christmas season, and they are at the receiving end of countless multimedia messages and carefully crafted advertising campaigns designed to manipulate and direct their desires towards particular brands and products with which to fill their letters to Santa. Combine this with the fact that Christmas is now starting as soon as the Halloween pumpkins are carved, and our children face two long months of bright lights, repetitive seasonal songs and consumer market-driven hyper-stimulation that they are not developmentally able to process.
Children do not have the emotional language or cognition to express this verbally in terms of, "Mum/Dad I am feeling overwhelmed and perturbed," so they will show us the only way they can, which is behaviorally and the overwrought parents of the overwhelmed children will be pushed to the point of... threatening to tell Santa that the child has been naughty so they may not get any gifts!
It's a threat that has been a part of many of our childhoods, but I would like to look a little closer at it and the impact it has on children. Christmas is about children, it is about magic, it is about imagination and it is about kindness, or at least it ought to be. I'm not a fan of threatening to tell Santa when a child has been naughty or threatening that Santa won't bring gifts, because it simply isn't true. No matter how naughty and challenging your child's behavior might be, Santa is going to come to them and as such, you are undermining yourself by issuing empty threats that further arouse your child with anxiety when they hear it.
Let's try thinking about it from your child's perspective. Christmas is a time of magic, when Santa and his elves work together to ensure that every boy and girl gets a gift that they want for Christmas. Then, all in one night, Santa magically ensures all those gifts arrive in every home before your child awakes. And all your child has to do is behave well and do kind things, so let's focus on finding ways to reinforce this kind behavior, invest in magical thinking and access their imaginations to try to stretch the ever-narrowing window of childhood out a little further.
I have been running parenting courses, classes and talks for a number of years now, and the three most common complaints that parent's share with me are their anxiety over disruptive and bad behavior, the stress and worry they feel over not being able to spend more time with their children (especially in the evenings) and their ongoing frustration with their children playing with electronics all the time. Christmas is a time when all of these stresses heighten, and I believe that parents must focus on the positive behaviors they want to see from children as opposed to repeating back to them what they do not want to see through a series of empty threats.
Using imagination enables children to develop on their impulse controls, reasoning skills, patience and the importance of emotional self-regulation. I believe that parents can utilize the magic of Christmas to invest in their child's development of these life skills and at the same time, reinforce and encourage good behavior rather than threatening to report back on bad behavior. This would allow families the opportunity to invest in the nice and not the naughty while building up crucial life skills in their children. Bonus: It also helps you to regulate the long over-stimulated Christmas build up!
Children do not need something/someone looking over them supervising their actions, ready to report back to Santa when they have misbehaved or made a mistake. This concept will only serve to send them into a state of anticipatory arousal whereby they become hyper-vigilant for signs that they are right to be worried and anxious, even if it means inadvertently self-sabotaging to bring about a release from this state. When you let a child know you are looking for the bad in their behavior, they will not let you down. Wouldn't it be far better for them (and you) if you invite them to identify a positive, happy moment from their day for you to relay to Santa as well as something they wish they could change and do over differently? This helps them identify the good in themselves while taking a solution-focused approach to something that didn't go so well, so that they can learn from it.
You can help your child to access their good and kind behaviors to feedback to Santa this year through 15 minutes of positive parent-child communication and connection each day. Make this year a year when there is only a nice list to think about.
Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and attachment specialist working with children/adolescents/parents for more than 12 years. She developed www.santaslittlebuddy.com as a practical parenting tool-kit to support parents to support children over the Christmas season. She is founder of Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin, Ireland. Read more about her and her work on www.joannafortune.com She tweets @solamh