How to Keep Your Kids Motivated to Be "Good" Once Santa Is off Duty

by Rebecca Lang December 20, 2016

little girl and boy  hiding behind table at kitchen and looking at cupcakes kept on table

The day after Thanksgiving is a magical time of year for those of us with children who celebrate Christmas and the tradition of Santa Claus. We may say that we love the killer Black Friday deals and the Christmas songs that dominate the radio, but those aren't the true reasons we love this season.

We love it because the prospect of gifts from Santa Claus motivates our kids to be good.

Simply sing-songing "I'll have to tell Santa" can be enough to make kids pause and adjust their behavior. While it's a tool that mustn't be overused, when it's done right, it's a real thing of beauty. Actually, it's like a Christmas gift for parents. For the whole month of December, we can enjoy temporarily well behaved kids with a little less effort than usual.

On Christmas Day, though, as we clean up shreds of wrapping paper from around the tree, we say goodbye to this magical advantage. I imagine it's back at the North Pole with Santa and his elves, putting up its feet by the fire and drinking a Moscow Mule to celebrate a job well done.

So, what are we to do for the next 11 months when our careful cajoling, respectful reasoning, good natured nudging, and blatant bribery doesn't get our kids to behave how they should? We may pack up the lure of Santa with our Christmas ornaments, but we can still employ the Santa Strategy with our kids. There are plenty of other people to call when the going gets tough.

Certainly, the Santa Strategy works because children are motivated to be good in the name of gifts, but they're also natural people pleasers. They don't want to let Santa down, and chances are, there are other people in their lives who they want to make proud, too.

It's just a fact of parenting that kids tend to listen to other adults better than they listen to us. There's a clever mock news article titled Study: Children are 800% Worse When Their Mothers Are in the Room that pokes fun at this idea, and it's popular because it's absolutely true.

So, when Christmas is behind us, and we've exhausted all of the positive parenting tools in our bag, we can dust off the Santa Strategy and call in some reinforcements to encourage our kids to behave.

When they won't go to bed, call the Sandman

There are actually two myths about the sandman. One is absolutely terrifying, and the other is just about a guy who helps kids fall asleep by sprinkling sand in their eyes (still creepy, but at least he means well). I strongly suggest calling up the friendly one. Cast a friend or family member with the smoothest Barry White voice to play this role, and give them a ring.

When they won't brush their teeth, call the dentist

The goal here is not to make them afraid of the dentist, but to give them an example of accountability. This one's most effective either right before or soon after a visit to the real doc. We go to a male dentist, so my brother has had the honor of playing this role for us.

When they refuse to eat anything healthy, call the pediatrician

Healthy food means healthy bodies, and the pediatrician would want to know when one of their favorite patients isn't eating fruits and veggies. Like the dentist, this isn't about making them fearful of the doctor. It's about helping them make connections about health and hygiene. Your favorite babysitter probably does a great pediatrician impression.

When they won't get dressed, call their teacher

Schools run on a schedule. Teachers enforce that schedule. Kids who don't get dressed will be late, and this would certainly be disappointing to their teacher. Friends or family whose voices are familiar, but not too familiar, make the best stand-ins for school teachers.

When they fight with their siblings, call Grandma

She'll be so sad to hear her precious darlings aren't getting along. The best part of this phone call is that no stand-in is required. Grandmas always know how to make things better.

When they won't clean up their toys, call their best friend's mom

No chores mean no playtime, and you'll just have to let their friend's mom know this. If you and she are on good terms, then there's no need to cast a substitute. If you're leery she'll judge you for your parenting choices, then call up your own best friend.

Is all of this deceitful? Sort of. Is it harmful? I don't think so.

This isn't about threatening or strong-arming our children. It's about tapping into their desire to be good kids and the novelty of talking to people they admire or respect, who also happen to back up what their parents say.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then sometimes we need to use that village to get our kids to do what they have to do. Parenting is exhausting. Yes, raising children is a blessing and a gift, but it's also the greatest test of patience one can imagine, so sometimes, we just need to call the "dentist."

We'll all be better off for it in the end.

Rebecca Lang


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