Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Offer You Can't Refuse

Last year, a bearded portly guy came to town and made me an attractive offer. He’d get my kids to behave if I built him up to be some kind of present-giving hero. Never mind that he employed unpaid elves and a team of mutant flying reindeer, what bothered me were the terms of his bargain: If the kids behaved, then he’d dole out presents. If they didn’t, well don’t want to know.

Was this really ethical? How about the diminutive spies he sent out, code name, Elf on a Shelf, who watched, big brother like, and filed nightly reports on household behavior?

Was this all in the spirit of Christmas, or just a way to bribe and threaten my kids?

A year ago, I sincerely wanted to know. I wrote to the British philosopher and author, Alain de Botton, and asked him about the use of Santa Claus to encourage good behavior. He is a  father himself, and wrote back to say:

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.

Author and Philosopher
Alain de Botton
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,

Oh, Alain, your words now, as did your books The Consolations of Philosophy,  and How Proust Can Change Your Life have come at the right time. Soon, I might need to conjure up my own friendly sleep ghost, but in the meantime, for a short while still, I do have Santa.

May he do his best.

His elves can wiretap for all I care.

If the Easter Bunny has some free time and wants to swing by and offer a carrot, he has my permission. Tooth Fairy—we haven’t officially met, but given the force with which my oldest is yanking at her tooth, I expect we shall soon—you are welcome to sprinkle a bit of goodwill dust in the air. My kids and I have been known to have breakdowns and meltdowns from time to time, and you fanciful entities, as Alain de Botton suggests, do seem a lot less harmful than the cast of characters I have assembled in my situation room right now.

My go-to team of advisers?

First, there’s Captain High Fructose Corn Syrup, found principally in lollipops, a stash of which I was unfortunate enough to win. She and her pops have been used primarily to get my young troops moving—out of the house, through the front door, and into my car, by which time the HFCS treats have been licked, crushed, and devoured by the highly energized children who carried them.

Second, there’s General George the Curious and his colleagues in a remotely controlled region of PBS, who, as far as I can tell, is financed by me and the viewers like me.

Third, in the high range of my register, and in the depths of my bowels, is a voice called, Mommy’s Losing It, that has been known to make telemarketers cry, delivery men flee, and occasionally, get an obstreperous child to follow directions.

Fourth is an agent who likes to keep a low profile. And, to be fair, this deputy of nocturnal sanity is not often called to the table. Only rarely, when all other measures fail and the risk of not using him is greater than the risk of overuse, say on the fourth day of a cold, or first day of an eczema outbreak, does Benjamin “Ben” A. Drill come down from a cabinet.

So, Santa, you show up once a year and then split. Do you think it’s worth keeping you briefed on matters of domestic civility? Worth financing your bag of toys? Worth touting your hyperbolic blacklist of naughty children? Worth feeding your milk and cookie addiction?

If you could help me with a few things on my personal wish list (getting the youngest to sleep, the oldest to stop asking to wear high heels) then, I’d say yes.

What about my ethical concerns? My hesitancy to make a deal with such a masterful manipulator?

I’m in my second term as Parent.

I’m a realist.

I firmly believe in Santa.



Tim Morrissey said...

My mother, who is 83, still uses the third character you describe to herd her (adult) children.

Wonderful post that makes us all feel better about using Santa as "disciplinarian in absentia."

Liz said...

I love this, it made me laugh. Growing up Jewish my parents never had the option to make us behave for Santa and now that my kids celebrate both holidays, thanks to a mixed marriage, I make all the use of Santa and the elf on the shelf that I can!

parenting ad absurdum said...

I love that. Mild, gentle discipline - the order of the day. I'm a softie!!

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly funny post.

Kristi said...

Well-written fun. What is Elf on the Shelf all about? Kind of creeps me out to think about some elf watching me all the time, or my kids. Reminds me of the nasty clown doll that came to life in the movie Poltergeist. Scary!

Fran said...

a dear friend once recently brought this to my attention as her response to my inquiry of "are you ready for Christmas" this year was responded by "well..." and i can't wait to forward this to her as i believe she will find quite the comfort in knowing she is not alone in this keen observation.