A locally-owned toy store in our neighborhood has a tradition of making a “Santa’s Nice List” and putting the names of all of the kids that shop there regularly on the wall at Christmastime. It’s a sweet tradition that my kids have looked forward to every year.
But one year, someone forgot to put their names on the list, and they were devastated. The manager had a great system for dealing with this, telling them that Santa calls her every night for an update, and she would check with him then. She wrote their names down on a little slip of paper and said she’d ask.
A few days later, they begged to go back and see if their names were up, so we stopped in during our errands. But their names still weren’t there, and they both got very quiet. When we got outside the store, my youngest burst into tears.
“Mommy, do you think Santa is mad because I broke your favorite bowl?” he asked.
“No, honey, that was an accident,” I told him. “It’s Christmastime, so I’m sure everyone is just super busy.”
I had to bite back my own tears, heartbroken at his vulnerability to such a simple and understandable oversight. My older son said nothing, just quietly wiped away tears as he walked to the car.
That was the moment I started to rethink the Santa story.
The “Naughty List” is a trick parents play on kids
The idea of Santa unrolling a long scroll full of children’s names is one that goes back as far as any modern Santa Claus tradition, so we don’t often think to question it. It just seems like part of the magic of Christmas.
But when you think about it, the “Naughty or Nice” Lists aren’t really about the holiday spirit, are they? The season is supposed to be about giving, magic, and the spirit of togetherness. Where, in that magic, does the idea of defining whether kids are good or bad fit in?
The truth is, these lists are about tricking our kids into being good by threatening that they’ll get a lump of coal instead of presents if they don’t behave. And while enforcing consequences for making bad choices is a very important part of parenting, most ethical parents would never follow through with canceling Christmas because a 6-year-old had a tantrum or a 3-year-old hit his brother.
But still we threaten it.
“You’ll end up on the Naughty List!” we warn.
“Do you want a lump of coal in your stocking this year?” we ask.
Why? Because it’s an easy way to scare our kids into behaving.
Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent, says kids take the idea of being categorized as naughty or nice very seriously. “We have to remember that kids invest a lot in this notion – it is FAR from benign to them. And the ongoing threat of a ‘naughty’ list can be detrimental to the well-being and self-esteem of some children.”
This list also perpetuates a myth that there is such a thing as a “good” kid or a “bad” kid, equating how many presents you get with how good or bad you’ve been. This becomes very troubling when you consider the factor that most often contributes to how many presents a child may receive: wealth.
There are more than 16 million children living at or below the poverty level in the United States — defined as earning $23,550 a year for a family of four. The National Center for Children in Poverty explains, “Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45 percent of children live in low-income families.”
If parents sell the idea that Santa — or the Elf on the Shelf — is watching, and kids are rewarded with presents for being nice, then how is a child expected to understand why this magical man, whom we tell children is able to build any toy, only delivered to them a few small gifts (or none at all) on Christmas morning? How is that child expected to internalize who they are — naughty or nice — in this context? And how are kids with more wealth expected to interpret why Santa delivered less presents to some of their friends?
How the Santa story can affect children’s faith in God and themselves
To be clear, the Santa story is a secular one. Yes, it’s celebrated as a Christian tradition, but it doesn’t really have to do with Christ. We’ve confused these two narratives enough that children are expected to believe in Santa in the same way they are taught to believe in God.
When Kristie Christie, a child advocate and educator who focuses her work on spiritual and emotional formation in children, learned the truth about Santa, her entire faith in God was rocked. She felt so betrayed by the lie her parents had sold her about Santa, she dared not risk her faith again, even to God.
Kristie did eventually find her faith again, but says parents need to be careful how we sell our story to kids. “The risk comes when we put a lot of weight into convincing children to trust in Santa the way we want them to feel safe trusting in God. When truth is revealed — that the parents are involved in a multi-year lie — kids can feel very betrayed. Then, kids might find themselves unable to trust the word of the one person they need to trust the most.”
Children are smarter than we think. They notice things like stores selling “stocking stuffers” and question the scientific validity of “magic” as they grow older. Observing these details and trying to place them into their reality is a healthy part of development and shouldn’t be discouraged. What’s more, their instincts may tell them that something is amiss with the story, and it’s good to help kids learn to trust their instincts.
But when we leverage presents as a way to keep them believing, we teach them a pretty potent lesson on trusting themselves both emotionally and intellectually. And most of the time, the reason we want them to keep believing is because it’s magical for us, as their parents, to keep them innocent. That seems pretty selfish in the end, doesn’t it?
You can still create Christmas magic
First, decide what Christmas values you wish to convey to your children. Is it about giving, family, togetherness, and generosity? Kristie Christie recommends devoting some time to learning about St. Nicholas, who gave gifts to children in need, and his connection to our modern-day Santa Claus.
She also recommends untying the connection of Santa and Jesus, noting that in some ways, Santa actually undermines the story of Jesus, saying, “Jesus is believed to be a gift of grace, not merit. Our behavior isn’t rewarded by Jesus, Jesus comes to Earth because our behavior is in need of redemption that God wants to provide.”
Dr. John Duffy suggests parents focus on gratitude and service. “I have coached some client families to focus on these two graces during the holidays [by] working as a family to come up with some way to serve those who have less during the holidays.” He also notes that expressing daily gratitude, perhaps at the dinner table in those special weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, can help raise children’s awareness of what they have, and help them be grateful.
The Santa story can also be told with more mystery, which is what my husband and I did for our kids. We explained that nobody really knows much about Santa, but ultimately he is about the magic of Christmas. We also told them that parents help out during Christmas time, as do the helpers who dress as Santa at the mall.
Dr. Duffy has seen families very successfully tell their children Santa stories without forcing them to commit to absolute belief. When asked whether Santa was real, Dr. Duffy explains, the parents would say something like, “We believe that the positive holiday spirit that we call Santa is real. Can’t you feel the excitement this time of year?”
Christmas is a beautiful time of year, and we can use these stories and traditions to help our children grow into kind, giving adults. But we need to be thoughtful about how we tell them these stories so as to maintain our kids’ trust and faith in us, and maybe even in God.