“Santa won’t come unless you’re good.” Taking bribes and threats to greater depths.

What’s wrong with a little bribery around Christmas time? Every parent does this, right? It might seem like a convenient and harmless way to get kids to comply without an all-out fight, but I think it’s bribes and threats in their lowest form. 

I don’t like bribery or rewards as a parenting tool at the best of times, for a number of reasons. One is that they teach children to focus on self-gain, to do things for the wrong reasons. I’d really like my child to tidy his room because he’s conscious that it’s the right thing to do, because his connection with me is strong enough that he wants to comply with my requests. Not because he’s rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of the pile of presents he’s going to get at Christmas. I don’t want to encourage a self-interested, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.

Normally I’d also point out that when we use rewards as a parenting tool we model bribery and manipulation, and yet, actually, that isn’t a problem in this case. No need to worry about that here since we’re not even bothering to at least be honest about what we’re doing. Instead, we stoop to greater depths and deviousness by hiding behind Santa. It’s his decision, not ours, as to whether or not our child has measured up to standard. How convenient? What a cop-out. 

santa with listThen there’s the use of the term ‘good’ when referring to a child or to their behaviour. It’s quite a broad term really, isn’t it? What does it really mean to our children, other than that when they’re not ‘good’ they are, by default, ‘bad’? Is this really what we want our children to believe? When my child makes a bad choice, loses control, or becomes disconnected, and behaves in ways that I don’t want him to behave, shaming him is really not helpful. Making him believe he is not ‘good enough’ for a visit from Santa isn’t going to make him feel great about himself or help him behave any differently. I don’t want to impose on him these feelings of conditional acceptance. Whatever his behaviour, he is always loved and loveable. 

Think about it. What a horrible message to send a child – that they are so bad that the jolly, generous, magical man who likes to give children presents will simply miss them out because they’re a bad person. What a horrible threat to make to a small child, whether empty or not. Christmas should be a magical time for children, and as such should not be poisoned by adults with their unkind threats and scare stories. Of course every child will be visited by Santa. It’s the season of goodwill, of love, of forgiveness. 

The thing is, children, especially those young enough to believe in Santa, don’t always have complete control over their behaviour, their impulses, or their feelings, and they don’t always make good choices. They’re still not terribly mature, you see. Behaviour is communicating a need. Even if it’s outright defiance, there’s still a message there, a need for connection. Simply trying to use Santa to control behaviour isn’t going to meet those needs, and isn’t going to foster that close connection of love and trust that is the real key to gaining genuine cooperation. 

Bribes and threats have no place in a loving, connected, respectful relationship. Instead of hiding behind Santa we need to be the parents our children need us to be, to understand and address their needs, to show them our gentle leadership, our ability to set empathetic limits and to accept the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in response to those limits. And above all, we need to send the message that they are loved unconditionally. However they might behave, Santa will visit no matter what.

2 Responses to “Santa won’t come unless you’re good.” Taking bribes and threats to greater depths.

  1. marytuda says:

    Speaking now as a total non-expert, just a Mum with instincts (oops! I know this is not a popular concept from previous posts here) which are, however, the product not only of my own experience of being raised, but also of years of experience and thinking accumulated since (I’m a very old parent) . . . Much as I applaud the approach advocated here in general, and totally agree that too many rewards/prizes and/or sanctions for every little thing breeds unhelpful competitiveness and promotes the worst sort of point-scoring, all too prevalent among small boys anyway . . . I have to admit we would simply not get through our week without occasional “If you don’t get dressed now I’m taking you in your PJs”, or “You can have the cake/biscuit/TV-or-computer on/go to after-school club tonight if/when we’ve done your practice/reading books/homework first.”
    You can take the view that a 6 year old should not have to do anything he does not want to, which would cover homework (often), swimming lessons (sometimes), music practice (regularly). He could spontaneously opt out of any of the above, on any day he didn’t feel like it; this would be the Montessori method, would it not? And I’m not attempting to ridicule it, on the contrary, there must be a lot to be said for it, especially in an environment where children are traditionally so regimented they hardly know what they do like doing. But some things, and there’s a lot of recent consensus that music is one of them, are best introduced regularly and early – long before a child can take responsibility for his or her own progress.
    My child happens to be at an ordinary state primary that makes a big deal out of teaching all children to play violin from age 5; it’s done with imagination and humour and mostly, they enjoy it. But they don’t particularly enjoy practising at home. Naturally, not all manage it. But the ones that do (including, so far, my kid) are in the elite group, in which they take great pleasure; for competitive reasons, yeah, but also because of what they can play with panache already. I doubt it would have happened for any them without plenty of parental nagging/bribing of the kind mentioned above.
    It’s a balance. I know that if I pushed too hard, it would put him off, to the extent that he’d stick his feet in; mine is a child of strong opinions, definitely not the most biddable. Pressure must be applied with imagination and subtlety; he needs to know in advance what will be expected of him so he can mentally prepare ahead of time. Bribes wouldn’t work at all if he really had no interest in or aptitude for music, and I certainly hope I’d have the maturity to accept that if it were the case. But – I don’t want to listen to him regretting (as I do, rather) that his parents didn’t make him work at his music at a later date. And making him work at it, at this stage, means using little bribes and/or sanctions. Just some more food for thought.

    • Jo says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’m not sure if you’re saying you would tell your child Santa won’t come if he doesn’t do his violin practice, or otherwise shame or punish him if he doesn’t do it. I’m inclined to think you wouldn’t but that you’re making a more general point about bribes and threats.
      Yes, I agree, it’s not easy and can be exasperating when my child’s not cooperating. But I would always try to gain his cooperation using various other strategies (with imagination and subtlety like you say) rather than resorting to threats or bribes which may seem like an easy option in the short term but won’t bring about any long term changes.
      Just to be clear, I am not of the view that a 6 year old doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. There will always be things that are non-negotiable, like leaving for school on time, taking a bath, washing hands before meals (my child hates this for some reason), etc etc. Parents will also decide on other things they feel are important and that they want to insist on for their child’s own benefit, in your example, violin lessons, and I am of the view that we, as the parent and mature adult, need to take responsibility for seeing that these certain things get done.
      I think insisting it happens before something else can simply be part of limit setting, depending how it’s presented. But the problem with using more material bribes, which you may have read before if you’ve read my other posts, is that they provide extrinsic motivation which has been shown to actually decrease intrinsic motivation and devalue the activity being rewarded.
      In short, parenting without bribes or threats does not mean parenting without limits or letting children do whatever they want. It’s about finding other ways to set those limits and achieve those goals.
      Good luck with the violin lessons, it sounds like you (and your child of course) are succeeding so far. As a musician and former music teacher it is one of my great wishes that my child learn a musical instrument, we just haven’t yet begun in earnest, so I’m quite jealous!

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