I was at a holiday party the other night when a friend sighed and declared, “Gotta go home and move the elf.”
I couldn’t help but shake my head a little and sigh to myself, admittedly with an air of righteousness, knowing we’d never say that in my home.
My husband didn’t understand the reference, so I explained to him what “Elf on a Shelf” was, to the best of my knowledge.
“So, basically they use scare tactics and bribery to get their kids to behave?” he paraphrased. And I nodded, again with a slight air of disbelief.
Another friend of mine has a direct line to Santa. She calls him periodically and loudly proclaims, “Hi Santa, it’s Gigi’s mom…” More rapidly than an eagle, little Gigi gets to work doing whatever Mommy asked her to do in the first place. I can’t help but wonder how Gigi will behave come December 26.
Meanwhile, in our home, my husband and I work very hard to encourage our kids simply to be good for – to quote a popular Christmas song – goodness’ sake. Throughout the day, when my two-year-old son cries, I ask my four-year-old daughter if she can think of a way to make him feel better. The slightest hug or kiss from her is all my son needs to immediately pop back to happiness. And then I’ll quietly nudge my daughter and point out: “You did that! You got him to feel good again.” And we share a quick, tender smile before she goes back to being a robot or astronaut or baker.
My two-year-old was born into the loving and kind family environment my husband and I try to maintain. When he hears a kid cry, he automatically pouts in empathy. He is quick to dole out hugs or kisses to people he knows when he sees them in distress. And, of the few dozen words he uses, “I’m sorry” are two.
So the notion of encouraging my kids to be good in order to make Santa’s “nice” list really troubles me. Not only does it completely undermine my authority, but it’s pure extrinsic motivation.
I am not trying to pretend that my kids are saints, always behaving appropriately out of the sheer joy of being nice. Nor do I posit that children who believe in Santa are not otherwise good people. But how kids think of Santa Claus represents, for me, all that is not Christmas spirited: receiving instead of giving, greed instead of gratefulness, idle wanting instead of active contributing. And encouraging my children to write letters to him or make Christmas lists or be good because he’s watching encourages all the wrong things for me. I want whatever goodness does come out of my children to be for the right reasons. I want them to be people who are simply good and kind and honest, as I try to be (well, most of the time:).
Granted, when I was a child, I believed in Santa, though I realized he was fictitious long before my parents told me. (I remember feeling a little embarrassed for my mother when she finally outed the guy.) But in my naïve days, there was a certain magic about Christmas Day and the night before, believing the man would fly to my house and bring me presents because he’d been watching me and knew I’d been good. But had I? Had I been good?
I remember being a child sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall, nervously hoping he’d only heard good things (this, just moments after kicking my sister as we stood in the long line). So then when Santa confirmed I was on the nice list and presents were coming my way, I remember feeling – even as a young child – how I had gotten one over on the old man.
This year, now that my daughter is of an age where she could truly believe in Santa and be consumed by the magic and thrill of believing, I wasn’t willing to let him come down our chimney.
My friend with the ever-watching elf thinks I am cruel. She thinks it’s truly sad that I have robbed my children of the magic of the holiday. But I don’t see it. My kids still enjoy reading about Santa – as much as they enjoy reading about Harold and his purple crayon or The Cat in the Hat, magical characters who are not actually real but still capture a child’s imagination. My kids will still wake up on Christmas morning to see a sparkling tree with a modest bounty of presents underneath.
But more importantly, they will also give gifts to the less fortunate, say thank you for what gifts they receive and continue to be kind and do the right thing. It will be a magical day because we will have a house full of people plus gifts and music and food. The lights will still twinkle and the decorations still shine. No one needs to sit on a shelf or a keep a list for us. The day will be special simply because it’s Christmas – even if Santa skips our house.