It’s that time of year. Children are wrapped up in the magic of Christmas and parents are keeping track of their Christmas lists and continuously reminding their children “someone” is watching to see if they’re being Naughty or Nice. Who is the judge of good and evil in your house? Is it an elf perched atop a shelf - up to no good of his own? Or is it the big guy himself, Santa? In our house we use a solid combination of both. Use whatever you can to see the results you want, right?
But, there is a little itty bitty problem with this “Holiday Parenting.” It’s that itty bitty little voice kids start to form in the backs of their heads about who they are as people. When kids hear they “are Naughty” or “are Bad,” they believe it. And when they are told they “are Good” we leave a lot of room for them to question whether they “are now Bad” when they make a mistake.
Kids don’t do grey area well. They don’t read between the lines, and most of the time they think in black and white. If you tell them they are one thing, they also think “I am not something else.” In all the years I have been a therapist and have worked with kids and families I’ve seen this play out in different ways. Kids who are told or feel they “are bad” can begin to have a low self-worth. They begin to act out and can fill the shoes well for the label they have been given. Rarely do I see a kid who is told he “is bad” figure out how to “be good” on their own. Many times they don’t even know exactly what the behaviors were that made them “bad” in the first place. They get confused, sad and angry. That is not the building blocks for a confident kid nor a recipe for better behavior.
Then there are the kids who are being told they “are good” and to “be good.” For these kids it’s easy to see anxiety crop up for making mistakes. This can then turn into lying when they do something wrong, for fear they will now be seen as “bad.” Then they hinge on a wobbly sense of self-worth, as they are not sure what made them “good” in the first place, and therefore don’t know what big or little “bad” thing they could do that will take their precious title away.
Now I get it….saying “be a good girl” or “good boy” is as much of a habit and natural as saying “good morning.” This is what we, as parents, do. When I drop my daughter off at Grandma’s house I would naturally toss out the “Be a good girl!” as I said my goodbyes. But then I realized….What the heck does that mean? Does it mean listen, follow directions, use kind words, or share? Yeah, probably all that, right? So, now I say exactly that. I say specifically what I expect her behavior to look like. And when I pick her up, I no longer ask if she was “a good girl.” Instead, I ask her caretaker if she did those things and let her know I’m proud of those individual choices.
And what is “Naughty” or “Bad” anyway? Is it not following directions? Is it not being respectful? Is it not sharing? Or is it lying? Or… sometimes is it being honest when others don’t like it? Is it sometimes standing up for themselves and refusing to cooperate with something that makes them uncomfortable? Is it being energetic and silly (because they are)? Is it even sometimes just simply rocking the boat? When it comes to compliance with reasonable rules and expectations, I totally agree. Those are “bad choices.” But sometimes what we criticize in kids as “naughty” or “bad” is simply their budding independence or character/personality pieces we may find annoying or wish to change. Well, that’s not fair.
And what if we want them to stand up for themselves? Especially against a person of authority? What if we want them to break the mold, be inventive and out-of-the-box thinkers, even if it rocks the boat? Will they fear being considered “Naughty” or “Bad”?
The way I see it, all kids are born inherently “good” and with a desire to belong and to please their parents. Giving them any belief to the contrary will not produce good things for anyone. It will not make them feel good and it will not make you feel good about your kids. I teach kids all the time that no one is “all good” or “all bad,” “all naughty” or “all nice.” It’s each choice that counts and each choice that makes a difference in addition to all the good things they have going on inside of them, like kindness and love.
So here a few of the takeaways….
- Defining in “Goods and Bads,” “Naughty and Nice” is not as productive as we would like to think.
- Instead of focusing on defining quality of choices as the quality of the person, focus on the choices themselves and always encourage their capability to make better ones.
- Break down what your expectations for good behaviors are, and exactly which behaviors you do not want to see. Be specific.
- Use negative choices as a way for kids to right their wrongs. Teach them how to be accountable for their mistakes. After all, isn’t it more appropriate to expect a person to make mistakes and be accountable rather than to never make any at all?
- Praise things you appreciate about your kids, whether it’s choices or qualities of character. Help them understand their worth is more than the sum of their choices.
Yes, keep your elf and use your Santa leverage but keep it about choices and helping your kids think through them. Because I don’t know of any kid that has received only one measly lump of coal in their stocking come Christmas morning! In the meantime, may your elves move swiftly, may that to-do list grow shorter, and may Santa see all the good in your kids that you do!
Merry Christmas everyone!