Naughty or Nice?!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And in many child environments, home or school, it’s also the time when behavior is managed with the heavy hand of Santa Claus or The Elf on the Shelf. While these characters can be a fun and playful element of the holiday season, they can also be highly problematic for children’s development when they are used as bribery and manipulation. 


There are a number of reasons adults use characters to coax children into behaving well. Here are just a few: 

  • Tradition – it’s how our parents raised us. It’s what we know. 
  • Stress – adults create and experience a lot of stress around the holidays. When we’re stressed, children get stressed. When children are stressed, behavior often unravels too. 
  • Fun – it seems silly and harmless and the kids seem to like it. 
  • Social pressure – Santa Claus is a pretty pervasive part of American Christmas and has been for years. But social media took the social pressure of Elf on a Shelf to a new level.
  • Desperation – parenting is hard! It makes sense to try anything that might work. 

The problem

While it may seem silly and playful to incorporate Santa and the Elf into your behavior management plan, here’s why it’s problematic for children’s development: 

  • It’s temporary – it’s only for 1 month. What motivates children to behave the other 11 months of the year? 
  • Undermines your authority – when Santa and the Elf are in charge, you are not. 
  • It’s a lie – while pretend play is a valuable part of childhood, when adults orchestrate a lie, it can breed mistrust, in a relationship that should be built on trust. 
  • Promotes sneakiness – if children only have to behave when they are being watched, they learn sneakiness rather than integrity and accountability. 
  • It adds to your stress – it’s one more thing you have to keep up with and manage, taxing your energy that could otherwise be put into using one of the strategies below. 
  • No one is naughty or nice – we’re people, we make mistakes. The dichotomous categorizing of naughty or nice isn’t realistic. 

What to do instead

There are many ways to approach the holidays and addressing challenging behavior with children do that do not include bribes or manipulation. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Be consistent year round – having the same expectations at any time of year will make it easier for children to complain. When the stakes are high (behaving to get presents) they will likely feel more stressed and less capable of regulating their behavior. 
  • Talk about individual and community impact of behavior – the goal of behaving in socially -acceptable ways isn’t to get presents or to be considered “nice”. Long term, we want children to be respectful, considerate, and kind citizens and partners. Talk to children about how their actions impact themselves and others. 
  • Consider appropriate consequences – logical and natural consequences are most likely to be the most effective. Punishment and shame tend to breed feelings of anger, resentment, and mistrust. 
  • Coordinate other holiday traditions – create fun ways to honor the holidays that aren’t centered around children’s behavior. Putting up a tree together, baking family recipes, driving around to look at holiday lights, watching holiday movies, and so on. 
  • Focus gifts on relationships not behavior – at the holidays we give gifts to people we love, that’s not dependent on the mistakes they’ve made in the year. 
  • Minimize sugar – I know, I know, this one is really hard. But if your child’s behavior gets harder around the holidays, try reducing sugar. 

If you love Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf, you should keep them! I definitely love the joy on my son’s face when he sees a santa and I giggle every time he says “ho, ho, ho!” Keep it light, keep it playful, and don’t fall into the trap of traditions you love becoming a behavior management system.

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