Santa’s watching: The two words young children dread to hear this time of year

How to promote good behavior in your child without bribes all year and not just during the holidays.

Gift-giving, family visits, holiday vacation and the phrase “Santa’s watching” are all on a parent’s list of favorite things this time of year. While they are all fun traditions, parents look forward to being able to utter the words “Santa’s watching” to their children to promote good behavior. As we all know, Santa decides who gets put on the naughty and nice lists. When children misbehave, they walk the fine line of being transferred to the wrong list and risk getting coal versus gifts.

For many children, this technique might work for about 30 days of the year, and for very young children even fewer days as they live in the moment and are not too concerned about the future. So what will parents resort to the other 335 days of the year?

In a way, we are using good old St. Nick as a way to bribe our kids in exchange for good behavior. We all can be motivated by a little incentive, but when we bribe our children, Jim Fay, founder of the Love and Logic philosophy, says that bribes, and even rewards, can send unspoken but powerful messages like these to kids:

  • You’re not capable of good behavior without bribery.
  • Good behavior is only important to adults.
  • There is no intrinsic value in that activity and you must pay me to get me to do it (Linda Gordon, CEO and president of Gordon Training International).

We should want our kids to have good manners, respect others and be responsible (brush their teeth, clean their room and do their homework) because it is the right thing to do. Bribing might have the short-term results you are looking for, but in the long run the bribe will require being bigger and better and if not, guess what? The behavior, crying, biting, etc. will return and possibly be more intense.

Bribes also set kids up to feel entitled versus responsible and respectful. When we give kids so much, they don’t feel like they have to work for anything. Some behaviors should be expected and internalized by the child. Fay suggests that when kids ask their parents what toy/treat they will get if they behave in the grocery store, respond in a calm tone while smiling, “A happy family, that’s what you get.”

Teaching a young child the importance of being responsible decision-makers at a young age when they are most receptive to the idea will come in handy as a teenager starts turning towards their peers for advice on life and driving for the first time.

Bribery versus rewards

There is always confusion about the difference between bribery and rewards and if either are appropriate for children. The difference lies in the delivery. When we bribe a child, we offer something in anticipation of a bad behavior or during a bad behavior. An example would be, saying in advance, “We can get ice cream on the way home if you are good during your sister’s ballet recital.”

A reward is different, as it is given in response to being appropriate at the ballet recital without being asked. In addition, it is not assumed by the child that every time they behave well during something they would rather not be doing that they get “rewarded.”

Rewards should also be used sparingly as children need to develop self-discipline skills and be able to resist temptation. Research has repeatedly shown that when a preschooler can resist temptation of eating a tasty snack they fare significantly better than their more impulsive peers when they become adolescents. They are more likely to do better in terms of school success, mental health and avoiding the juvenile justice system, according to Brooks and Goldstein, authors of “Raising a Self-Disciplined Child: Help Your Child Become More Responsible, Confident, and Resilient.”

Alternatives to bribes

We first need to consider if the child knows what is expected of them and the right thing to do. Also, remember that a child learns a lot about watching how we as adults/parents behave. If we get antsy in long grocery store lines or angry at drivers who seem to not know the rules of the road, they will react the same way when put in similar situations.

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following as alternatives to bribes and encourage good behavior.

  • Use active listening. Often, being a good listener and not offering solutions tells a child you are confident they can make the right decision, especially when you are not around.
  • Use “I” language. “I don’t like standing in line at the grocery store.” Tell your child that you also get frustrated, and when phrased in this way you refrain from blaming someone else (“Why won’t the store open more checkout lanes?”)
  • Model good behavior. Teach your children ways to calm down when they are upset or frustrated. If you are frustrated about sitting in traffic, say, “I am really frustrated right now. Please help me calm down by taking deep breaths with me.”
  • Teach children to say how they feel. Teaching children about their different emotions, positive and negative, will help them recognize cues that they might be on their way to feeling angry or frustrated, for example. Instead of them saying, “You are driving me crazy right now,” a developed, emotional vocabulary will help them communicate they are frustrated, glum, happy or excited.
  • Give attention during the good times. Good behavior is sometimes overlooked. As adults, we tend to give our children attention when they are misbehaving. The attention around the misbehavior will actually increase the misbehavior as they like the attention. Give them a lot of extra attention when they are doing something you like and remove it when they are doing something you don’t like.

Wonderful memories are made during this time of year. Enjoy the holiday season with Santa, but don’t make monitoring behavior his responsibility.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 impact report: “Preparing young children for success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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