I Told My Son There’s No Such Thing as the Naughty List


“Do you think I’m on Santa’s nice list?” my 5-year-old boy asked one morning, looking up through his eyelashes.

“Of course, baby.”

“But what if I’m not? What makes a kid be on the naughty list?” he probed further. “I feel so bad for kids on that list.”

Of course he does. No kid wants to end up on THE BAD LIST, officially banned from Santa’s route, skipped over in favor of better, more deserving children. How many children have mentally reviewed their year, wondering how Santa would interpret the inevitable mistakes and slip-ups? How many children have woken up on Christmas morning to find coal in their stockings? (My father, as a little tyke, was one of those kids, lest you think the “naughty list” is a universal empty threat.) How many children have lain awake in their beds, in the dark, silently mulling over whether they’ve been good enough to deserve Santa’s attention?

I could have brushed off the question — lovingly reassured him that he’s on the nice list, that I’ve cleared it up with the Big Guy, lie, lie, lie — but I feel such a grating resistance every time I fabricate another piece of the Santa storyline. Yes, I’ve willingly welcomed the tradition out of sheer nostalgia and excitement and merry magic. I’ve accumulated a comforting pile of justifications over the years, and yet I still get an “uh-oh” feeling when he asks things like, “But how is he watching me, mommy? HOW?”

Turns out, the naughty list is where I draw the line. I didn’t know how fed up I was with the force-fed Santa lore until that very minute, when I crouched down to meet his worried eyes and told him the truth.

“There is no naughty list,” I said. “That’s just something parents tell their kids to get them to behave.”

His eyes widened.

(In hindsight, using the words “just something parents tell their kids” in a conversation about Santa could have sent me skidding down a slippery slope. Also, I may have highlighted a secret weapon that parents use — old fashioned manipulation — but is that really the kind of parent I want to be anyway?)

“Santa is special because he has the spirit of giving and generosity,” I continued. “He knows that just because kids do bad things sometimes, that doesn’t make them bad people. He understands that kids learn from making mistakes, and he isn’t in the business of punishing. So don’t worry about being on a naughty list; there is no naughty list. Santa enjoys giving gifts because it feels good to be generous, and he loves to spread happiness. He sees goodness in all children.”

Okay so I sort of told him the truth. But if I’m going to succumb to the cultural pressure of Santa, I can at least be aware of the lessons it’s teaching. Santa gives children something bigger than themselves to believe in — something they can’t see or touch, and that transcends logical perception. He embodies the spirit of giving, generosity, charity. He brings happiness and joy.

Every child deserves happiness and joy.

Every child is deserving of attention, love, and recognition.

Enough is enough with guilting and shaming our children with neatly labeled “Good” and “Bad” columns. Enough with the weird manipulation and cheap threats around a holiday that could just be celebrated. Why are we teaching kids to be good for more material stuff? Enough with this vindictive, fear-based Santa who peeks in at kids and continuously updates a running document of their actions, adjusting his generosity according to his judgments. (That’s not how generosity works.)

Maybe it’s time every kid heard the truth: The Naughty List doesn’t exist; it never did.

After all, these kids are believers. Taking the entire Santa story into consideration — from twinkling elves to magical surveillance — they’ll clearly believe just about anything we tell them.  So if we tell them that they’re naughty, undeserving, not enough — even just threaten that it’s a possibility — then they’ll probably believe that too.

And some beliefs take a lifetime to undo.


Image courtesy of Michelle Horton

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