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If you embrace Santa Claus as part of your family’s holiday tradition, it’s possible you might want to give the “jolly old elf” a personality make-over. If Santa at your house has become mean and crabby, helped in spying on children by a new sidekick, the “elf on the shelf,” it’s time to remember the spirit of the season and restore the old guy’s charm.

There’s a bit of a philosophical divide here. Following one line of thought, Santa Claus is the representative of a judgmental God, bent on rooting out sin and punishing wrong-doers. This is the Santa who keeps a tally of children’s behavior all year long. He then awards coal or candy on Christmas Eve, depending on the worthiness of a stocking’s owner.

Following the opposite line of thought, Santa Claus is the representative of a loving God whose guidance takes an especially gentle approach for children. This fellow understands that children make mistakes. He also understands that children develop best when they are assured important people love them. This Santa would never think of giving a child a lump of coal for Christmas. This Santa can be trusted to be a nice guy.

Most parents agree Santa Claus is a positive person. If Santa is part of a family’s celebration, he is almost always portrayed as a happy, smiling, loving guy who is nice to reindeer and generous to children. But there has been some slippage in Santa’s image. Many parents hint that Santa’s love is conditional. They park a toy elf in the home where it can “watch” children’s good and bad behavior and then report back to Santa Claus before he loads up his sled.

Santa’s good reputation has been tarnished  by extortionist threats delivered in his name by moms and dads who are out of better ideas.  If anyone deserves coal in a stocking, it is parents like these.

Now, as the holiday winds to its grand finale, take a long look at your children and their behavior. Notice that kids get excited and do things without thinking. They do this because they haven’t yet developed the sort of self-control adults have or an appreciation of the consequences of their actions. Notice that being a parent means helping children with this development by guiding their behavior in ways that don’t undermine the parent-child relationship. Trust is important. Do nothing to destroy your children’s trust in you.

So, as children this week get over tired and over wrought, take a deep breath. Make adjustments without making threats. Keep this up all the way through the holiday season.

You don’t need an elf on the shelf. When you keep Christmas in your heart all year long, you keep alive the very best of Santa Claus.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

So here’s a question: if parents shouldn’t lie to their children (and indeed they shouldn’t!), then what about the tooth fairy? What about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? Is it lying to a child to spin these fantasies and present them as true? Should you avoid pretending these characters exist at all?

Most of us grownups love these fantasies and we love to share them with our kids. We love the magical quality of these folk characters. The very idea of an other-worldly being tiptoeing through the household at night, sliding baby teeth out from under pillows, delivering gifts, or hiding colored eggs is strangely comforting to us old folks, as if there were indeed some supernatural mentor looking out for us and providing us with good things. Even though we adults know full well these fairy beings are not real – in fact, that they are us – we love the pretend play that surrounds them. We love the fantasy that a spirit being could magically supply our kids with everything they need.

In an anxious world, make-believe in bounteous benefactors is a comforting thing. It’s no accident that the tooth fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny remind us of religious protectors.

So that’s why we love the tooth fairy. But is it wrong to perpetuate this myth (and the myth of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny)? If we lead a small child to believe in these characters, are we being false?

Some parents believe so. They do not honor these pretend characters and actively debunk them when children ask about them or when someone else brings them up.

Some parents deliberately deceive their kids, spinning ever more elaborate fantasies as their children start to question these characters. They go beyond simply enjoying small children’s blurring of fact and fancy and instead actively delude children who have begun to question the truth of the pretend characters.

The best course, I think, lies somewhere in between. While there’s no harm in rejecting these fantasies, there’s no harm in going along with them, either, in the same way that we “believe in” Big Bird or Kipper. It’s more harmful to aggressively squelch what is, after all, harmless fun if a child wants to engage in it or if his friends and cousins do. There’s a difference between not-supporting something and dismantling it. “Bah humbug!” is not an endearing response to someone’s playfulness.

At the same time, children have to be allowed to outgrow their fantasies and enjoy being “in the know.” This is an important part of growing up and seven- and eight-year-olds love to indulge younger kids in fantasies they themselves have only recently learned were not strictly true. They love being the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny for littler kids. So when parents cling to the fantasy, lying when their children start to question the truth of pretend characters, they stifle their children’s intellectual development, sow seeds of self-doubt, and demonstrate that they themselves can’t really be trusted.

Suggesting a lost tooth be left for the tooth fairy is good fun and it soothes what could otherwise be an unsettlingly bloody event. But arguing with a child that the tooth fairy is real when the child suspects it’s made-up is not a good idea.

That’s the time to smile and say, “You’re right! You figured it out!”

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.