By Michelle DeRamus, Ph.D.
For generations, adults have used the benevolent, jolly figure from the North Pole as a disciplinary tool to coerce children into behaving in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Some parents threaten “naughty” children with coal in their stockings.
The latest tale is that Santa’s helper –the reliable, yet somewhat mischievous Elf on the Shelf– is always watching and will make a report back to Santa, which will result in the gifts that the child will or will not receive. What many well-meaning parents do not realize is that using Santa Claus as a threat or a form of punishment is not the most effective disciplinary method for many reasons.
Let me start by saying that I do not believe that Santa Claus is bad in any way; alternately, he is an exciting, vital part of many families’ Christmas celebrations and should be seen as such.
However, when Santa’s gifts (or lack thereof) are seen to be dependent on a child’s behavior, it can dampen the merry spirit of Christmas for everyone. A child may understand that he/she has to be “good” for Santa to come. But, what does it mean to be “good?” A parent’s definition of “good” may vary from a child’s definition of being “good.” Rather than using a vague command to “be good”, it is more effective to list out specific tasks that you would like a child to complete or the things that he/she must do and then praise or punish appropriately.
Additionally, despite momentary frustration with a child’s behavior, the majority of parents will not actually return all of a child’s toys or follow through on idle threats for Santa Claus to give a child coal– or nothing – for Christmas. Thus, I encourage parents to use realistic rewards and punishments that they are willing and able to follow through with so that children will learn that a specific action leads to a specific reward or punishment.
Finally, the concept of Santa Claus cannot be used as a reliable form of punishment because the holiday season is brief. Sure, children are worried about making a good impression on Santa (or his elves) during December, but in January or February, the reward of Santa Claus coming is so delayed that it will not motivate a child to take specific actions that would lead to the desired gifts. Effective disciplinary techniques are applied consistently throughout the year.
What should I use instead of Santa Claus to make my child behave?
Child psychology research repeatedly points to using positive reinforcement, which can be defined as adding something to a situation that will make a behavior more likely to happen in the future.
For example, if you would like for your child to eat more vegetables at dinner, you would verbally recognize that child when he/she takes an extra helping of turnip greens. A parent might say, “John, I like how you are eating turnip greens tonight. I am proud of you for wanting to be healthy.” Another example of a positive reinforcement would be a teacher giving 20 extra bonus points on a test in order to reward the students who studied for the exam. Positive reinforcement recognizes the good actions that your child is taking each and every time.
Still, kids are going to misbehave sometimes even with positive reinforcement techniques, and parents will have to use age-appropriate punishments at times. Tip: If you give a warning about a punishment, make sure it’s something that you are prepared to follow through with. Realistic examples of punishment could be time-out for a few minutes or taking away a toy for the day. Unrealistic punishment might include taking all of a child’s toys away for a month or more because they were left out on the floor or telling the child that Santa Claus will not come because of his/her bad behavior.
1.Rather than using a vague command to “be good”, it is more effective to list out specific tasks that you would like a child to complete or the things that he/she must do and then praise or punish appropriately.
2.Use realistic rewards and punishments that they are willing and able to follow through with so that children will learn that a specific action leads to a specific reward or punishment.
3.If you give a warning about a punishment, make sure it’s something that you are prepared to follow through with.
By taking the coal out of Santa’s sleigh, you will become a more effective parent, and Santa will go back to personifying the magical spirit of Christmas for everyone.
Next week, we will discuss some specific examples of behavior problems that parents often face during the holiday season.
This blog was first published on http://www.muscogeemoms.com