There’s so much to love about Christmas. The efforts we make to spend time with those we love and check in with those we’ve not seen for a while. Shining lights brighten short winter days, while familiar festive favourites round an open fire warm our bodies and our hearts.
But Christmas is an emotional time too. The joy of family gatherings and catching up with our nearest and dearest tinged with sadness as we remember those no longer celebrating alongside us. The weight of expectations, to produce the perfect meal, host the perfect party and source the perfect present. And for children, an added burden and pressure, as the chimes of, ‘Have you been good for Santa?’ ring out.
And every year that gets me thinking.
Like Robin Hood, Santa Claus is a legend and that’s fascinating. Tales spun for generations, of legendary figures and their heroic (or otherwise) deeds, support a sense of shared history and culture. Sharing stories with our children opens up discussion and encourages us to reflect on our own times and our own behaviour. Examining the past, and the traditions we carry forward, allows us to consider our future and our part in shaping that. Just like bow ties, legends are cool.
Stories have an immense power to inspire and motivate us. And while they may contain some historical truths, legends evolve and alter over time. But this doesn’t diminish the joy and magic that surrounds them. We don’t have to believe that stories are true for them to amuse and captivate us. And even to imagine ourselves a part of them – who doesn’t love waking on Christmas morning to ‘snowy’ footprints, half eaten carrots and crumbs strewn across the lounge floor :).
We all get to choose the elements of Christmas we carry forward from our childhood and every year is a chance to make new traditions. For some children the idea of a strange man coming down the chimney at night is just way too creepy. And now he’s got elves on shelves watching their every move. No surprise then that so many are questioning the customs around Santa and how they fit into the season of goodwill, love and peace for all.
I’m curious about this idea of children being *good* for Santa. What might that look like, how will we know and does it even matter? Of course, it’s not just Christmas that this question arises. When other children play or stay, we’re often asked, ‘Have they been good?’. And it always stumps me. Not that they’ve been *bad* and I’m hesitant to ‘fess up, more that I’m not sure what I’m really being asked.
The traits we value change across time and space. There’s no universally agreed definition of what’s good. But a myriad of contradicting beliefs that are historically, culturally and personally defined. How can we be sure we agree on what’s good and what’s bad. Clearly I’m not comfortable delivering that verdict.
Sure the question’s well-meant and acknowledges an intention not to cause us any trouble. But when it comes to children being good, that’s often linked to how well they follow orders and the level of inconvenience they cause.
If we judge *good* by such superficial elements – requiring children to say please, thank you and sorry on demand, eating up their dinner and being quiet and compliant – then appearing good becomes more important than true cultivation of character. Children learn respect for themselves and others over time, from what they see and experience within and around themselves. Shortcuts are a false economy.
Santa might seem like an effective shortcut this time of year. Blatant or veiled threats of no presents unless you do what you’re told can work in the short-term. If what you want is less inconvenience and less behaviour that feels challenging and confrontational. But given that behaviour is a form of communication and often reflects our feelings, these sorts of shortcuts can damage our relationships and confuse our children.
We want children to feel loved unconditionally. Meeting their needs and nurturing strong relationships built on trust and respect are our job as parents. Attempting to manipulate our children’s behaviour by using Santa as a threat undermines the connection and partnership between us.
It exploits the imbalance of power between parents and children, using rewards and punishment as weapons of control, wielded at the will of the dominant force. Encouraging a dependence on others for a sense of worth, the fear of punishment encourages dishonesty and a focus on self-preservation as children fear being honest about their mistakes, in case they count against them.
Yet we learn from mistakes. Worried about sharing difficulties, anxieties or regrets children miss out on help to move forward. Opportunities to reflect, to consider and to grow that can strengthen our relationships and support their development into independent, assertive, responsible and kind adults.
Kindness is naturally reinforcing, giving does feel better than receiving. But when we’re consumed by worry and fear, focussed on ourselves and whether we’ve lived up to the expectations of others, whether they’ll judge us good enough, we feel pressured and guarded.
Coercion, however subtle, creates resistance. Requirements from others, even demands presented as suggestions, change the way we feel. Even if what’s required is the very thing we were planning to do anyway, we feel less inclined to do it. Robbed of the opportunity to act from the heart, on our own initiative and experience the genuine, natural consequences of our behaviour, the organic development of our internal moral compass is disturbed.
Judging who is deserving of reward or punishment and whether any of us has the right or remit to make such judgements is complex territory. Asking whether or not our children have been good suggests a rather patronising, uncharitable and pessimistic view of human nature. Surely we’re all doing the best we can in any given moment, even when that might look *bad*. It’s not necessarily our absolute best or the best we can ever be. There’s always more to learn and we’re all operating with different information and perception under varying levels of stress, skill and need at any time. But for the most part, we’re all doing what we can with what we know, what we have, and where we are. Assuming otherwise is disrespectful, erodes our trust in each other and has bleak implications for the future of our communities and our species.
Insisting that Santa delivers their gifts can leave children feeling betrayed and disrespected by their parents when they discover this isn’t the case. While many shrug this off suggesting they never really believed it anyway, for some it’s deeply unsettling. Like the victim of a cruel conspiracy, children may wonder what else they’ve been deceived about.
Encouraging the notion that Santa rewards good behaviour can set up unrealistic expectations and stir up feelings of disappointment, resentment and competition. Surely Santa wouldn’t be constrained by mundane matters like budgets and stock levels. A hugely effective marketing icon, Santa has helped to fuel our current levels of consumerism and materialistic gift giving at the cost of other forms of generosity and service to others.
Yet the idea of Santa delivering presents without waiting for a thank-you, when no-one’s awake to show their appreciation embodies a wonderful sentiment of generosity and kindness. And this is the essence of the legend, giving generously, anonymously without any conditions. So we’ll be enjoying Christmas without the pressure of being *good* and we’re hoping you will too. And if like me, you wonder what to say when the question’s asked, check out Sara’s 10 responses.