Don't use Santa as a threat: One mom's cautionary tale
For many parents, the magic of Santa Claus is a part of our cherished childhood memories that we look forward to sharing with our own children. I was thrilled to tell my toddlers about Santa Claus, but after hearing what Santa does, they're not excited for Christmas, they're terrified.
As a busy mom to almost 3-year-old twins, I'm all about doing whatever it takes to make getting through the day, or even through the checkout line, easier. So last week when my sons were getting rowdy in the grocery store, a nearby holiday display inspired me to deploy the Santa Claus threat for the very first time in order to get them to behave. Instead of convincing my kids to shape up or risk losing their Christmas gifts, my plan backfired horribly, and now my children are afraid of Santa Claus.
Millions of parents have used the legend of Santa Claus for years as a way to entice their children to behave in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" spells out exactly how Santa watches over little kids to determine what gifts they are worthy of. The song is so well-known and popular that it's been recorded by musical giants. The Jackson 5 sang it. Mariah Carey sang it. Bruce Springsteen sang it. Even Justin Bieber sang it, although perhaps his version is a bit ironic given his well-known shenanigans. But no matter your age or musical tastes, you've probably heard the story of Santa, and you aren't scared of him.
My kids are still young and had no real concept of what Christmas was all about up until this point, so I didn't think there was any harm in telling them about Santa Claus. Unlike so many other aspects of parenting, like co-sleeping versus sleep training, and breastfeeding versus bottle, there aren't really that many variations to the Santa Claus narrative. Telling my kids about Santa Claus seemed like something I couldn't possibly mess up, a part of parenting that would be both fun and easy. I gave my boys what I thought was an age-appropriate run down of the key facts:
Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. He's round and jolly and has a beard. He wears red. He says Ho, Ho, Ho. He drives a sleigh of flying reindeer. He watches you while you're awake and even when you're sleeping to make sure you're being good. If you're good, on Christmas Eve he will come down the chimney, eat some cookies and milk and leave you presents to open.
Simple, right? Wrong.
Just as my own mother did to me and her mother before her, I gained my children's cooperation and better behavior with the help of the man in red. But instead of saying bad behavior would get them no presents under the tree on Christmas morning, I made the mistake of paraphrasing, and I told them that if they continued to act up in the grocery store, that meant they would get no toys.
Seeing as how they have no trouble buying the whole Goofy-is-a-dog-that-talks-but-Pluto-doesn't logical fallacy, I thought my kids would be fa-la-la-ing in no time, but they heard the "no toys" part and took it to mean that if they step a single toe out of line a big hairy man is going to come down the chimney and/or out of their closet and take away their existing toys — right after he eats all their snacks. Epic parenting fail.
As a child I was a huge believer in Santa Claus. I can remember a family friend calling me on Thanksgiving each year as the big guy himself reminding me to be a good girl. Once the star on the top of our tree broke and Santa left me a new one in the mailbox. I was so excited that I failed to notice the envelope didn't have an address or postmark.
When I was six and wide awake late on Christmas Eve, I heard a crunching noise coming from the living room and was convinced it had to be Santa Claus eating the cookies I'd left out for him. I eased my way into the living room, completely expecting to come face to face with Santa Claus. But the only one there was our dog, Harry, helping himself to the cookies and milk. I was so disappointed that I cried myself to sleep that night. For many years the magic of Santa was very real and exciting to me, and I really want my kids to have that same experience, so I'm not giving up on Santa without a fight.
I'm trying my best to change my kids' opinions about Santa Claus. Once I managed to explain that a fuzzy red suit and white beard was not the same thing as fur, and therefore Santa Claus was not a monster that would come out of the closet like Sully in Monsters, Inc. my kids stopped insisting on making a stuffed animal barricade in front of the door every night. They still give the fireplace a wide berth when walking across the living room, and come nightfall they search the skies with furrowed brows as though they're waiting for a giant asteroid to come rather than a sleigh full of toys, but we've gotten to the point where they can walk past Santa at the mall without having an epic meltdown and pleading with me that they're good boys, really they are.
I decided to show them some classic Christmas cartoons, in hopes that watching cartoons would reassure them about Santa Claus and help me fix my mistakes, but How the Grinch Stole Christmas only made matters worse. Hopefully we'll have better luck with Charlie Brown or Rudolph.
With the help of Christmas-themed story books they can now name all eight reindeer and conveniently push any veggies I give them to one side of their plates, "For Dasher." I did find a pile of graham crackers in the microwave of their play kitchen the other day, but I'm not sure if they did that to protect the cookies from Santa's greedy clutches, or just because they like to keep an emergency snack stash on hand.
We have an advent calendar that we refer to each morning to count down the days until Santa arrives. While they've yet to turn down their daily dose of chocolate from the calendar, sometimes when I tell them Santa's on his way they cry, "No, no, be good!" and run and hide, so it's a work in progress.
Some friends have suggested I try using the Elf on the Shelf to get my kids into the holiday spirit, but if I can't tell the story of Santa correctly I'm not sure I'll have much luck selling the "untouchable elf spy who hides in your home" narrative without making matters even worse.
So kudos to any parent who's managed to tell their children about Santa Claus without scaring them. You've absolutely earned yourself a spot on the nice list this year. As for me, I've got until Dec. 24 to turn this thing around, or Christmas Eve will most definitely not be a silent night.