Sunday, December 27, 2009

I Confess, Before I Resolve

Before I can make resolutions I must confess my transgressions. There are probably many, so I will limit myself to the most recent.

First, I raided my daughter’s piggy bank. It was payback, frankly, and it was for a good cause. I was on the way to the dentist and needed money for the parking meter. My wallet was empty and I knew the one place I could score some change. The little porcelain pig in my daughter’s room has been staring at me for years, fattened on quarters snatched from my wallet and husband’s desk. We never think much about it until we’re in a jam, which is where I found myself when I snuck upstairs and turned the little pig upside-down. I removed the plug and shook the pig until I had two dollars in ice cold change in my greedy little hands. Then I put the pig back, thanked it, and didn’t look back.

Second: Unlike my friend who told me that while her kids napped, she finished off her Christmas cards, I did the opposite. I napped and let my four year old do the cards. Given my first offense, it’s beginning to sound like we should just move to Hollywood so I can profit off my child in a much more efficient way, but really, in this case, all I needed was some sleep. I knew I could get Heidi to sit at the foot of my bed while I napped, but if I wanted her to observe what I like to call, “quiet time” I’d need to suggest an activity she could not refuse.

In the past I’ve allowed her to use my digital camera. I awoke to find two hundred photos of a progressively less patient golden retriever. I once loaned her my I-pod, but my playlist has never been the same. So, on this day, I handed over a fresh batch of photo cards and some snowman stamps. “Do your best,” I said, after showing her where the return address labels go. This was a task her father usually did, and although he’s good at most things, affixing stickers is not his forte. So, I explained that the bar of competence was very low, still, at 44 cents a stamp, she needed to understand how costly any mistake would be.

She did beautiful work. And, this is when I started to feel guilty. Instead of being grateful for my cat nap, I dreamed of more ways to put her to work. She could re-organize the spice rack, fold socks, or sort junk mail. She had a knack for organization, and the linen closet was a bit of a mess. “Mom,” she said, breaking me out of my reverie, “my hands are tired.” “Of course,” I said, taking the pile of cards. I told her I’d finish them some other time. And, honestly, someday soon, I hope I do.

Third, and this is the one that troubles me most, I used Santa as the heavy. More than once, her fear of being on Santa’s naughty list made my life a lot easier. Thumping her little sister’s belly like a cantaloupe—what would Santa say? Pouting when I say it’s time to turn off the TV? Might not be on the nice list anymore. Dilly-dallying when we were already late for school---major infraction, threat of no presents.

How did this happen? I really do not know. Or to put it more diplomatically, I do not remember. Who first told my four year old about Santa’s MO? When did she hear the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town? I did not introduce her to the concept of the naughty and nice list. But, I confess that once she started talking about it, I did nothing to dissuade her. And, I have reaped the benefits. As the big day approached, I didn’t even have to mention Santa’s name. She was self-regulating and citing his special policy changes for children under two. (In a surprising act of tolerance, she stated that her little sister was granted dispensation and would receive presents despite being a diaper butt.)

But, the Santa situation bothered me. I did not like the idea that she wanted to be good for the sake of receiving presents. More troublesome to me was the prospect that she listened to her parents and showed kindness to her sister to please some outside observer.

I want her to be honest, kind, generous, and cooperative because she knows within herself that those are good things to be. Was Santa obscuring this larger lesson?

I am sure there is another post to be written about the meaning of Christmas, but I will save that for a more theological guest writer. At the point I started writing this column, I was too afraid to even bother a member of the clergy. Surely these people were too busy thinking about Christmas to answer any questions about it.

So, I turned instead to another source of guidance, and luckily someone who is also a parent. The Swiss-born Philosopher, Alain de Botton. What did he think about the use of Santa to encourage good behavior? Was I teaching my daughter to be good only for the sake of receiving a material reward? Would she ever learn an internal sense of goodness?

“The question you raise utterly timely. I am facing it with both my kids, 2 boys aged 3 and 5.

My feeling is that using Santa is utterly fine and ethical.

The reason is that any parent has such a hard time disciplining children that the self-discipline that comes from Santa is actually of the mildest, gentlest sort and preferable to the more hard-headed alternatives (naughty step etc.).

Also, children are not capable of ethical choice right now, so the claims of Santa are not an alternative to ethical thinking, they are a pre-ethical way of maintaining order and a modicum of calm.

I don't think that kids do take away from the santa= present equation the idea that being good gets a material reward (as many psychologists argue). They take away the broader underlying point, which is that being good leads to good things.

The trick in the teens is then to suggest that good things encompasses far more than material advantages. But that's definitely for a later stage.

If you can believe it, I have even had to resort to the idea of a friendly sleep ghost in order to lure my four year old not to get up at 3am every morning.

With very good wishes


(For those, like me, who do not watch Super Nanny or know their British idioms, the naughty-step is a place for “time-out”).

When I got the email from Alain I was ecstatic. Not only because I had permission to use Santa as my partner in discipline, but because I’d gotten a personal email from someone famous, whose books I’d read for decades, who I never thought in a million years I’d converse with. I jumped around the room, printed the email and slept with it on my nightstand. It was silly-happiness, the kind I do not feel often as a grown-up. And, it made me think that the idea of Santa, too, is part of the silly-happiness of childhood. Why not let my four year old enjoy that for a little while--even the thrill of earning a spot on the nice list?

I did introduce something new to our Christmas this year, though: a letter written by Santa. This year, he thanked Heidi for being so nice to her little sister. He also complimented her on her reading skills. He made a small reference to her tennis game, but no mention that she’d need to nail her backhand if she wanted to win a scholarship in fourteen years. We can save that for another letter.

The note made me feel better about how we handled the holiday. I had forgotten that I AM SANTA. (Along with my husband, of course.) So, Santa can’t really take away or obscure the lessons we hope to teach. In a small way, even if we have to write it out in black and white, we still control the message.


Anonymous said...

I would very much like to hear more about the "friendly sleep ghost" in order to share that with my son & daughter in law with regard to their 3.5 year old.

Another excellent post, Sarah. Frankly the fact that you ask the questions of yourself shows how aware you are of the implications of your actions. Self awareness is a huge deal in the "checks and balances" of parenting. I call it the 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not kid thyself." I put the 11th commandment up against my motivation in all things, whether they have to do with my interactions with my children, spouse, friends or God.

By the way: the Christmas card idea was genius. :)

Anonymous said...

Another terrific essay, sarah!

Alyson said...

Love that you wrote de Botton with your questions, and what fun he wrote back! I found what he had to say wonderful and reassuring. Thanks for this!

Kennen said...

As always...insightful and funny :) Keep writing! I love reading your essays.

Houston! said...

Our kids would never have survived the fall months without Santa threats. Ha Ha!

Good Enough Mom said...

I am so glad you wrote this! I have been thinking the EXACT same thing about Santa for the last month, as I shocked myself with my constant use of the "Santa's Watching!" threat. But, I love the reply you got--it makes a lot of sense, and yes, "Santa" really does seem to help my boys develop a tiny bit of self-reflection and emotion regulation! (oh, and for the record, we're raising them to be Jewish--HA!)

Thanks for writing!