Naughty Or Nice: Should We Really Be Using Santa To Discipline Our Kids?

If we use Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf to encourage good behaviour, it can make parents feel powerless at other times of the year, says a psychologist.
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“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.”

The concept of Santa is odd. In any other context, a large old man spending 24 hours a day watching children would be creepy. But at Christmas, it’s par for the course.

We teach kids lying is wrong, but go to great lengths to introduce them to this globe-trotting OAP, resulting in weird midnight rituals (taking a bite out of a carrot “left out for Rudolph”) designed entirely to mislead. We teach them not to talk to strangers, then sit them on the knee of a dude whose main qualification for the role is that he has a beard. And we teach them to be kind, thoughtful people, then chuck in a threat by saying they’re being watched 24/7.

Then there’s Elf on the Shelf, who’s in your house every day, “keeping an eye” on the kids. You can even buy fake CCTV cameras that intend to “relay footage” back to the big man himself. We’re often trying to promote good behaviour by name-dropping Santa and these elves – but should we really be teaching our children to behave through a combination of fear and greed?

No, says David Kyle Johnson of King’s College, who wrote in Psychology Today that he believes lying to kids about Santa in this way “degrades parental trustworthiness... and [is] equivalent to bribing your kids for good behaviour”.

Dr Rachel Andrew, a consultant clinical psychologist specialising in children and family, and director of Time Psychology, said she understands things like the Santa cams are marketed as a “fun” way of managing behaviour, but they could raise a number of issues.

“Unfortunately, this concept usually 1) is set up in such a vague way that children do not know what we are asking of them, 2) goes on for far too long in order for it to be attainable, and 3) is unenforceable – I have never met a family who have kept all their children’s presents from them,” she told HuffPost UK.

“It's unenforceable – I've never met a family who have kept all their children’s presents from them”

- Dr Rachel Andrew

Not only is it a questionable parenting technique, it can also lead to a “prescriptive” form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life, argue researchers Selena Nemorin, of University College London, and Dr Laura Pinto.

In their 2014 research paper, they said children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day – i.e. not touching it, just observing it – and “this is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination”.

Ultimately, said Dr Andrew, parents relying on Santa to manage behaviour may be disappointed that it doesn’t yield any long-term results – and that any short-term results seen are based on fear.

“Parents are relying on an external, imaginary figure, “Santa”, to back up their authority,” she said. “If this is the only discipline strategy used then longer term, parents can find themselves feeling powerless at other times of the year, and eventually all of the time.

“It is more helpful and healthy for children to know that their parents are in charge, through a balance of love and nurture and rules and boundaries.”