The Santa Threat

Every year, during the last week of school, I sit my boys down with pen and paper for them to sign Christmas cards for each of their classmates. ‘Card giving’ seems like a thoughtful friendly thing to do so I consider it a good social learning experience for them to sign and hand out cards to all the kids in their class.

I am secretly relieved that not everyone chooses to take part in the voluntary tradition or I would feel the need to confiscate half their haul of candy canes and other treats for the sake of their teeth. In fact, many of the sweet treats that come with the cards do find their way into the nearest bin when my boys have forgotten about them.

Jeremy (my seven year old son) got to work signing cards immediately. He made a list of his classmates and ticked them off as he went. Jeremy loves lists, so he was in his element.

Damian (my five year old son) had a shorter attention span and had only signed three cards by the time he got up and started playing again. I asked Damian why he had only signed three cards and he replied that he only wanted to give Christmas cards to the kids he thought were not (ever) bad in class. This sounded familiar to me, it sounded like the ‘Santa threat’.

Many parents, who give presents to their children from Santa, have used the Santa threat at some time or another. It goes something like this “Santa won’t bring you any presents if you are naughty”. Ingenious isn’t it. Originally, the idea came from the proverb that you would only get a ‘lump of coal’ for Christmas if you were naughty during the year and this was then cemented into Western culture with the hit song ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’

‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is an American Christmas song, first performed in 1934. It is a pretty catchy tune with some wonderfully useful lyrics that include:

‘He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake’

I have used the Santa threat myself in the past, in a desperate attempt to encourage my children to go to sleep at a reasonable hour on the night before Christmas. I have also heard the threat being used regularly in public and private spaces alike during the month of December each year and I smiled in collusion with the parents using it.

Damian had justified cutting short his card signing activity by adapting the ‘Santa threat’ to suit his own means. Nice try Damian. My response to Damian was to explain to him that the ‘card giving’ was about him, showing how friendly and thoughtful he was and not about the person who you give the card too. It was about making other people happy and think well of you rather than representing what you think of their general behavior.

That made me wonder whether the ‘Santa threat’ had somehow maligned the good character of Santa, given that his generosity was supposedly conditional.

There are several flaws to the use of the ‘Santa threat’ that I can see at first notice:

  1. It may be sending the wrong messages to our children i.e. that more socially competent children are more deserving of our kindness
  2. It is unlikely to be followed through with i.e. an empty threat and therefore once discovered as such will be rendered useless
  3. It is a missed opportunity for other equally effective yet more positive behavior management strategies (refer here).

Given my latest epiphany, let’s see how long I last before pulling the old ‘Santa threat’ out of my box of tricks. Although, now that Jeremy takes melatonin before bed to help him sleep, I may not use it after all.