Is using the threat of the judgement of Santa Claus for good behaviour year-round really a healthy and effective way to teach children how to display appropriate and socially acceptable behaviour?
Santa Claus, St Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Sinterklass or Дед Мороз: Across the world, the big, bearded man in red has taken many different names and iterations across cultures, but most of these stick to a similar narrative and folklore.
He visits children on one night in December and distributes presents and joy in a mystical, logistical feat with thanks to his crew of magical reindeer, or just by himself.
Children who are earmarked by Santa as ‘good boys’ and girls’ are rewarded for a year of good behaviour with whatever they asked for (or at least a version of it), and those who are bad will apparently receive something a lot less exciting.
Let’s start with the adage “if you’re good, Santa will bring you a present”. Research suggests that physical rewards promised far in advance (i.e., future Christmas presents) are not actually linked with positive behaviour or performance and instead have the potential to reduce children’s own internal motivation to do something. In one study, when children were given a physical reward for sharing in the past, they were less likely to share in the future compared to children who were given verbal praise of sharing or given no acknowledgement of the sharing at all. What does this mean? Promising kids Christmas presents if they’re good doesn’t often lead to them actually being “good” and it might actually backfire. They then might expect presents in order to continue behaving well, which is a little trickier to do once Christmas has passed.
Now let’s talk about the dark side of Santa “if you’re bad, you’ll get no presents/coal”. Research suggests that threatening children with negative consequences isn’t effective and doesn’t change seem to change children’s attitude to the undesirable behaviour all that much. Disciplinary tactics focusing on shame and disappointment in your child are also linked to higher anxiety, depression, aggression and misconduct in children.
Okay, so I’ve told you what you can’t do, and now you’re probably pretty close to yelling at me “BUT WHAT CAN I DO?” So, here’s what you can do to improve your child’s behaviour this festive season (and all year round). You can use natural or logical consequences. These are consequences related to the behaviour you don’t want your children engaging in and they’re much easier for little brains to understand. If they are throwing a toy at their sibling after you have asked them to stop, you remove the toy. The consequence of throwing a toy is no longer having said toy. This way the punishment is linked closely in time with the misbehaviour, rather than the threat of losing a hypothetical Christmas present in a month’s time. So, hang up that phone call to Santa and focus on applying a related consequence to the misbehaviour. I know it sometimes takes a thinking capacity we don’t have at 6pm on the final stretch before bedtime after a toddler has been screaming in our ear for 3 hours, but if you can, it’s significantly more effective in the long run!
You can also focus on their positive behaviour. By pointing out when they are engaging in behaviours you do want to see and praising them for you, you are reinforcing that this is something they should do and you are associating that behaviour with positive attention and praise in their little minds. That connection is important for them but also for you. If you are focusing more on their positive behaviour, you’re more likely to see your child in a positive light and more likely to be patient during more challenging behaviour (this is the magic of gratitude!)
Of course, this has very little to do with Santa and more to do with positive behaviour change, so let’s drill back into Santa to talk about some of the positives Santa affords our children. Children are more likely to behave more generously after thinking about Santa as Santa and Christmas more broadly embody the spirit of giving.
What about finding out that Santa doesn’t exist? Children generally discover Santa is not real (most report they just ‘figured it out’ around 6-8 years old). In one study, most children reported positive reactions to finding out with very minimal distress. Parents said they were much more upset though, with 40% reporting they were sad that their children no longer believe. So, if you are currently torn between engaging in the Santa myth or not, we have some evidence to say that, if done right, the Santa myth can increase generosity and doesn’t harm most kids when they find out.
Okay, now I’ve told you all the things you should and shouldn’t do, but Christmas time can be tense with small (or big) children running underfoot while you just try to bring about a little Christmas cheer. The festive season is beautiful chaos but it leads to more meltdowns from your little ones and unsurprisingly more meltdowns from you too. Fear not, it you lose it and yell, or threaten, or punish in a way that doesn’t sit right with you, there’s some brand-new research that’s here to help you out. Researchers have found that apologising to your children is associated with more prosocial, and less internalising (like anxiety and depression), behaviours in children. So go ahead and apologise for losing your cool and work with your child to figure out how you can both do better.
And remember, despite the screaming, the meltdowns, the wrapping paper everywhere, to look for the beauty in the chaos and the joy in the mayhem.
Kristyn Sommer is a Griffith University Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Prior to joining Griffith University, Kristyn completed her PhD at the University of Queensland (2015-2019) and was a lecturer in Developmental Psychology (2020).
Kristyn explores early cognitive development and has a keen interest in how children learn from technologies, specifically focusing on social robots. Kristyn is a strong advocate of open science and transparent research practices.
Outside of her research, Kristyn is an avid science communicator and engages in many public science activities. Kristyn runs a successful collection of social media platforms where she translates the science of child development into 1 to 3 minute videos for parents of young children.
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