Isn't it about time we stopped bribing our children with Christmas?
I hate Elf on the Shelf, The Naughty List and all of the other conditional crap that occurs at this time of year.
Unfortunately it is deep rooted in so many stories, films and songs that we re-play over and over at Christmas time. It is so frustrating too, as some of the stories, films and songs are my favourites. We have to remember that many of them are years and years old. Why are we not catching up with the evidence in our festivities? Actually why are we not catching up with the evidence in life?
Note: this is another BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm teacher's elf, that is most definitely not used for bribery / threats but for magic, fun and mischief!
I have educated my children around the use of words like 'Naughty' and 'Good' and unfortunately have to continue to do so, as they hear the words from others A LOT. Basically they are words to describe an opinion. A behaviour that the particular adult they are around at the time has decided is 'naughty' or 'good'. I have pointed out to them that what one adult thinks is naughty another adult may not, and the same for the word 'good'. It will be largely dependent on what that particular adult has been raised to believe is 'naughty' or 'good'. The words are very confusing to children and sadly a lazy way of not taking responsibility for your own feelings. Instead we could say 'I don't like it when you do that' or ' I really like it when you do that' as that is what we really mean! I have also told my children that Father Christmas has no such thing as a 'naughty list' - it's just a story that grown-ups tell children to try and make them behave in a way that the adult would like them too. That is the truth, isn't it?
I feel really sad for the many children that have a scary Elf watching their every move, deciding (dependent on whichever adult is controlling the evil Elf) what behaviour they display is 'good' or 'naughty' and basically believing that any 'bad' behaviour they have displayed may result in them being reported to Santa Claus and going on the 'Naughty List' then followed by the threat of not getting any Christmas Presents that year.
Fact: Children believe everything that adults tell them, that's how we get away with being able to create all of this magic around Christmas, the fun stuff, the stuff that gives us all really lovely, happy memories. How has all of the loveliness suddenly got so wrapped up in Super Nanny style ways of conditioning our children to behave and do we ever give a thought for what it actually means in the long-term?
If we raise our children using words like 'naughty' and 'good', and bribing them to behave, are they actually learning anything? Is it making a positive change in them? Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting says: “The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” And what happens if we threaten them with 'naughty lists' or consequences that we actually know we have no intention of following up on? Is there really any parent out there that would follow through with the threat and not give their children presents on Christmas Day? I hope not. So what is that teaching our children in the long term?
Dr Laura Markham of Aha Parenting says: "Consequences mean Punishment. Whether you're threatening a timeout or the loss of a privilege, that is punishment, which is defined as causing another person physical or emotional pain with the purpose of getting them to do things your way (or with the purpose of revenge). And punishment has been proven repeatedly to backfire in child-raising. Quite simply, punishment creates power struggles, and it doesn't help your child internalize self-regulation."
So, what can we do instead? How can we support our children to make positive decisions without threats, bribery and punishment? We can look at all behaviour as a form of communication. We can recognise that children don't have the ability to consider the consequences of their actions until they are a lot older. If the child has had lots of support in recognising the effect and natural consequences of their actions, and had someone gently pointing out others reactions and feelings, then the beginnings of this will start to happen, but quite a lot later than you might imagine. Brain development allows this to start really happening around age 7-8 but this part of the brain continues developing throughout their young life right into the teenage years. Often before a child is going to be able to consider anothers point of view they will need to have their own feelings understood and met first. They need to feel like their parent is on their side, not against them.
We have kindness Elves that come and visit us. They do kind things for us, and remind us to do kind things for others! They also get up to mischief! They are fun and magical but they don't bribe me to do the washing up when I am worn out at the end of the day or threaten me that I won't be able to have a glass of wine this evening if I don't!!
It has meant as a parent, I have almost had to learn an entire new language. I have had to learn to recognise what feelings might be driving my children's behaviour. I often forget myself, and get it wrong. It's not easy learning a new language and then trying to apply it every day!! It isn't a quick fix either. Unfortunately it doesn't mean your child is going to suddenly become amazing at working things out and never be reactive, make mistakes and behave in a way that feels uncomfortable to us and lots of adults around us. Your children will embarrass you frequently throughout life! And unfortunately in that moment they are incapable of caring about how you might be feeling! The trick is learning to tune into them, and not your feelings of embarrassment!
Parenting isn't a quick job. We are parents for life, and some of the expectations we have of our children are completely unrealistic. We have to look at it as a long-term investment. Some of the qualities we want our children to have, and the full potential of those qualities, physically cannot be met until adulthood, when their brains are fully developed.
Elf on the Shelf, Naughty Lists, Time-outs and any other form of behaviour management are unfortunately quick fixes. They may stop the behaviour in the moment but the evidence shows the long term consequence for the child is sadly very damaging for their self esteem. For long term change and internal changes to be made it takes a lot more than a quick fix, as with most things in life.
Find your nearest ToddlerCalm teacher
Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, moving from rewards and punishment
Dr Laura Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy kids
About the author
Katie Olliffe - Doula, Childbirth and Parent Coach