In theory, Santa Claus is a disciplinarian, promising toys and peppermint flavored treats to the nice kids and a hard, boring lump of coal to the bad ones. Every year around this time, my parents would trot out the threat that Jolly Old Saint Nick might be watching me, and that I could end up on his naughty list. “You better be good,” they’d warn when I’d whine, fight with my brother, misbehave, or otherwise have a stank attitude. “I’d hate for Santa to not bring you any toys.”
I’d shape up, as kids usually do when faced with a loss of privileges, but at the same time I never really bought it. After all, what would Christmas be without toys? I never knew anyone who got coal.
A couple of years ago, when I pulled the same line on my son Felix, my wife nipped it in the bud. “We’re not really going to take his Christmas toys away,” she chastised. “So why make an empty threat?”
“Isn’t that just what parents do?” I quipped.
Well, not Utah parents Lisa and John Henderson. They’ve cancelled Christmas this year for their three sons, who they felt have been acting overly entitled. In a blog post, Lisa writes:
“Our kids have been acting so ungrateful lately. They expect so much even when their behavior is extremely disrespectful. We gave them good warning, either it was time for their behavior to change or there would be consequences. We patiently worked with them for several months and guess what, very little changed. One day after a particularly bad display of entitlement John said, ‘we should just cancel Christmas.’ And, so that’s what we did.”
Really, they didn’t so much cancel Christmas as realign it to their values. They will still decorate, go to church, and partake in other family traditions, like playing games on Christmas day. They just won’t have presents or Santa. Instead of getting, they’ll give: they’re using the money they would have spent on gifts for service projects, such as holding a drive to collect clothing for a village in the Philippines recovering from last year’s Typhoon Haiyan. They’re also adopting grandparents — older widows and couples with no family for the holiday — for Christmas dinner.
Henderson believes that the hollow threats moms and dads make about Santa punishing the naughty is emblematic of a parenting culture that spoils children. “We continue to give our children things even when their behavior doesn’t warrant it, simply because we as parents don’t want to live with the consequences.”
Response to the family’s decision have been fierce and polarized. Some applauded their move, and imagined that, like in Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the true spirit of the season will shine through without getting overshadowed by bright new acquisitions. On Good Morning America, Ericka Souter, an editor for The Stir, called Lisa Henderson a “hero for parents with bratty kids all over the country.” Others considered them Scrooges, because what is Christmas if not an opportunity to give a child a little magic? Really, doesn’t every child deserve a toy from Santa?
Henderson defended her choice, writing “It’s not like I took Christmas away from Tiny Tim here folks.” She assures us her kids don’t want for anything and have more than enough toys. What’s more, she reports they’re embracing the Santa-less Christmas with good cheer and creativity, so it seems a win on many levels.
In my view, the Henderson’s are doing a pretty cool thing, and after talking about it with my wife, she’s on board too. It’s not like they’re skipping Christmas, or somehow disrespecting it, they’re just remolding the holiday to fit their needs at this particular moment in their children’s lives. I love their free thinking and anit-consumerist attitude. It’s very punk rock.
On Facebook, I see people sharing photos of decorated fir trees surrounded by mountains of wrapped boxes, with kids receiving not just one action figure, but a whole line of action figures. This is a far cry from the Christmas I grew up with, or the kind of Christmas my son has, where the present pile is modest, more quality than quantity. Of course, when I was a kid, Thanksgiving was actually a holiday and not a shopping day, as it’s recently become. Christmases were more modest on many levels. Today’s culture, especially when it comes to celebrities and sports stars, obsesses over material goods and symbols of wealth. It’s important as parents that we fight that shallowness, and teach our children that there are more important measures of a human being’s worth than what they own or how much they have in their bank accounts.
I also think Henderson is correct: many parents don’t like denying their children anything, no matter how the child behaves. It’s no wonder our kids seem spoiled, expecting the world but caring little for others, or the planet, or the future. We need to model for them that their actions matter, both in positive ways and negative. Realigning this holiday around values like sharing, kindness, and compassion sends a powerful message. It doesn’t surprise me that other parents have reacted to it so strongly. They hear an implicit criticism in the Henderson’s decision because it’s there. They’re saying, not us, we won’t continue to pretend our kids aren’t spoiled and not do something about it. Good for them, I say.
What do you think? Are the Henderson’s teaching their children a powerful lesson, or are they denying them a basic pleasure of childhood?
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