It's the holiday season. There are many special days celebrated this month by our friends and family. Magic is in the air. It is often with joy and excitement that friends and families get together to exchange gifts, eat food and share their traditions. It is also a the season of increased financial stress, over stimulated children, and exhausted parents. For many children their happiness and wonder is tempered by a subtle but ever present threat that they had better be good. For some kids there is an increased harshness of parenting that darkens their month of December.
"If you don't stop that right now Santa is not going to bring you any presents!"
"Santa has spies everywhere and they know if you are being good or bad."
"Do that again and I'll take all your presents back to the store!"
"Santa only brings presents to good children, so you obviously aren't getting any presents this year."
"You don't deserve any presents."
I'll admit to having been one of those parents who sang "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good....." under my breath as a not so subtle reminder to my small children that they were not behaving in a way worthy of Santa's gifts.
"Worthy of gifts." My perspective and my parenting have changed a lot since then. Being worthy of gifts is not a concept that fits with unconditional parenting. My children are worthy just the way they are. My children do not have to earn gifts through good behavior anymore than they have to earn my love. Gifts are given because the giving brings all of us joy.
When I go back and reread my blog post "How we live at our house" I am reminded that the idea of using Santa to guilt trip our children into behaving the way we want them to is completely counter to our principles: "We do not control our children. We do not use rewards or punishment, we do not threaten or bribe. We do not use love, praise, negative attention, disapproval, or the withdrawal of love and positive attention, to manipulate our children's behavior."
When parents choose to use Santa as the bully who keeps their kids inline they are missing out on the joy of the holiday season. And sadly some children who have been bullied this way will grow up and decide to avoid having Santa in the lives of their children because of the painful memories he evokes. Some parents will also tell you that they don't "do Santa" because they don't lie to their children. If you have read my blog for a while you know that I do not in any way advocate lying to children. I believe that families should be built on trust, honesty and respect. However, I do feel that it is possible to keep the magic of the holiday season alive without ending up with children who feel betrayed.*
In our house we believe in Santa. We also believe in fairies and dragons. Actually, I think we may believe in fairies and dragons to a greater degree than we believe in Santa. My children enjoy sharing these beliefs and the magic involved. If my children ask me if I believe in Santa I explain that I do believe in Santa, but that I don't think Santa is actually like he is portrayed in movies or commercials. I talk about the spirit of the holidays versus an actual person. My oldest daughter loves to help create the magic for her younger sisters. I am also open to changing our approach to Santa's role in our holiday celebrations if that becomes necessary.
Each family must have holiday traditions that meet the needs of their family members. No matter what your spiritual path, examining the traditions that have been passed down for generations is valuable and necessary. Just because "it has always been done this way" does not mean that you have to keep doing it that way. Traditions are not more important than your relationship with your children.
This season watch out for traditions that are causing tension in your family. Be aware of how the extra activities and stimulation affect you and your children. Be prepared to meet the needs of your children and to put their needs above everything else, including the expectations you or your extended family may have regarding holiday traditions and the behavior of children. Embrace the joy of the season. Look at the holidays through the eyes of your children. Find new ways to celebrate that make room for energy and excitement instead of smothering them in the name of tradition.
*Update 2013: As a parent you learn a lot along the way. Sometimes the ideas that you feel confident about, the things you Know, end up in the graveyard of Truths Proven Wrong. My statement in this post, "However, I do feel that it is possible to keep the magic of the holiday season alive without ending up with children who feel betrayed" is among those ideas in my life.
I did end up with a child who was devastated the year that she came back down stairs, after we thought she was in bed for the night, while we were hanging up stockings. She loved the magic of Santa Claus and had a special relationship with the Tooth Fairy, and if one wasn't real the other wasn't either. My desire to keep the magic alive for her back fired, and she still has sad and angry feelings about it a couple years later. It is my hope that as the years pass she'll see that my intentions were good and she'll feel better about stockings and filling them with the spirit of the holidays. Perhaps I should have been more straight forward when she asked tentative questions about mythical/fictional characters, even though I could tell she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the truth. She was going to be sad at some point, finding out that the stories she loved were made up, not real, and she enjoyed the years of believing, which makes me think that I wouldn't do much differently if I could do it all again.
Parenting is like that, a lot. You do the best you can, you learn from your mistakes, and you realize that there isn't always a way to avoid heartache and sadness. And when heartache and sadness arrive you respond with compassion and understanding, apologizing for any part you played in the situation, and validate the feelings of everyone involved.