Should You Tell Kids to Be Good Because Santa Is Watching?

Little boy sitting in front of Christmas tree
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Although the reminder that Santa “knows when you’ve been sleeping,” and he “knows when you’re awake,” has been used for generations, the spying tactics have changed over the years. If the threat of Santa’s mysterious abilities to watch a child’s every move from afar wasn’t eerie enough, now Santa has scouts who help him keep track of who belongs on the naughty list.

The Elf on a Shelf’s constant surveillance serves as a physical reminder to children that Santa will know if they’ve been good or bad this year. And while there's a good chance you can use Santa—and his elf—to your advantage, it may not be the best discipline strategy. But, it can be a fun and lighthearted way to get your kids' attention.

During the weeks leading up to Christmas, you might find you're able to keep your kids in line by saying, “You’d better be good because Santa’s watching.” The threat of not getting any presents—or of getting a lump of coal in the stocking—may temporarily set your child straight.

The stress and excitement of the holiday season often lead to increased behavior problems, and a few extra reminders to follow the rules during the holidays can be helpful. But threatening to take away their Christmas might not be a good idea.

Although most parents won't actually give their child a lump of coal, the threat alone might backfire in the end.

Problems With Using Santa as a Motivator

Getting kids motivated to behave for a stranger—versus for you—is an interesting concept. Saying, “Santa wants you to be good,” instead of, “I want you to be good,” may make it sound like your child should care more about Santa’s opinion than yours. 

Empty threats are never a helpful parenting practice. Nagging your child about their behavior and warning them that they won’t get any presents could actually damage your credibility. And when Santa delivers presents—regardless of previous misbehavior—your child will assume you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Many kids aren’t concerned with what’s happening tomorrow, nonetheless a few weeks from now. The threat of not getting presents days or weeks into the future may not be much of a deterrent.

Additionally, the idea that you have to “be good,” is a vague concept. It leaves many kids wondering, “How good do I actually have to be?” It also raises the question of what “being good” really means. You and your child may have very different opinions about what qualifies as “good.” 

Alternatives to the 'Naughty List'

The holiday season is often filled with family traditions, sugary treats, and changes to the usual routines. And while those things can be fun, they also can be stressful for children. That's why increased behavior problems during the holidays are fairly common.

Reminding kids to behave so their names appear on the "nice list" can be all in good fun; but it’s not likely to be an effective long-term solution for managing behavior. So rather than threaten to take away Christmas and blaming it on the guy in the big red suit, consider these tips:

  • Implement immediate consequences for misbehavior. If your child hits their brother, an immediate time-out will be much more effective than the threat of “Santa’s watching.”
  • Set specific goals. Rather than aiming to “be good,” a child is more likely to respond to a goal like “use kind words only,” or “use only gentle touches with the dog.”
  • Create reward systems. Set up a sticker chart or a token economy system that allows your child to earn immediate rewards for specific behavior.
  • Use positive reinforcement. Remember, threats are generally not effective. Instead, use praise generously to point out good behavior and provide plenty of positive attention.
  • Consider your child's self-worth. Telling a child they're on the “naughty list” isn’t likely to do much for their self-worth. Kids behave best when they feel good about themselves. A better message is "You're a good kid who made a bad choice." Use discipline strategies that promote healthy self-esteem.
  • Work on behavior problems all year long. If you’re concerned about your child being “ungrateful” or spoiled, canceling Christmas one time isn’t likely to change your child’s attitude. Instead, work on fostering gratitude every day of the year in addition to preventing the holidays from being all about the gifts.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re going to use the Elf on a Shelf and reminders about the “naughty list,” use it in good fun, not as a main discipline strategy. After all, the holiday season is short and you need to be armed with effective discipline strategies long after the presents have been opened. Focus on teaching your child to behave because it’s the respectful thing to do, not because they won’t get rewarded on Christmas.

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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.