How to Stop Using Santa as Your Discipline Plan

Dear Kid Whisperer,

We have been using the threat of “The Naughty List” to try to get our six-year-old to be nice. He has been anything but nice. Now we don’t want to get him the bike he wanted, since that would make this threat not work anymore. What do we do? -Eric, Columbus, Ohio


There is an old rule in child discipline. It is so old that it may predate the concept of discipline itself. It is this:

You are doing something wrong when disciplining your child if you are threatening him or her with the actions or inactions of an obese, imaginary artic elf.

I fully understand that the “Santa Threat” is a tactic that comes from the “I have no other ideas” drawer. As you have found out, it can backfire. Even if it does “work” (you get the behaviors you want from your kid), it doesn’t really teach your child anything about respect, responsibility, or anything else. All it teaches him is to fear the judgment of man whom he cannot see who is always watching him. It’s a little spooky if you think about it.

I suppose you should not buy him the bike. More importantly, you should try using some strategies that you can continue using after your kid notices that the Santa taking pictures inside the mall looks nothing like the Santa ringing the bell in front of the mall.

This Christmas, you can give your kid the gift of learning the way the word really works. Namely, he can start to learn that when you make bad choices, bad things happen to you. In real life, there will rarely be someone there to repeatedly make fantastical threats involving judgmental holiday-themed omniscient beings.

This is how I would teach this lesson to your kid if I were you. I would wait until he has calmed down about Santa letting him down on the whole bike thing.

Kid Whisperer: Hey buddy. I’m sorry about Santa not getting you a bike. Aunt Ruth did get you that Christmas soap though, so you’ve got that going for you. Anyhoo, I noticed that even though we threatened you about Santa, you were still pretty mean this year. This may have been your mom and my fault. I think we have tricked you into thinking that being mean is OK, because we never really did anything about it. Sorry about that. Do you accept my apology?

Kid: I…guess… you’re acting weird. What’s going on?

Kid Whisperer: This year we will be doing something different. When you act mean, we will just tell you that we are going to do something about it, and we’ll do it later when it’s convenient for us. We won’t warn or lecture you.

Kid: But… what will you do if I am mean?

Kid Whisperer: It could be anything. I suppose you will just have to wait to find out. Won’t that be exciting?

Kid: No. No it won’t.

Kid Whisperer: Well, good luck, and Merry Christmas!

When you have the mistaken belief that you always have to do something now about your kid’s behavior, you usually can’t think of anything in the heat of the moment. Just get to later, and then think of something when you are calm and can maybe talk to your wife about it.

How could you consequence mean behavior? You could restrict activities with other kids or the family until he shows you that he can be nice. Or, you could have him come up with a written plan for how he will make someone he was mean to feel better. Until the plan is completed, his non-school and non-church life stops. Kids don’t really listen to what we say, but they do notice when we take action.

Make it your Christmas Resolution to take action!