The Real Problem With the ‘Naughty List’

A girl sits with her face in her hands, looking disgruntled, surrounded by gifts under a Christmas tree
Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty

The Elf on the Shelf has taken some flak in recent years for packaging omnipresent surveillance as cute holiday fun for kids. Yet maybe the problem with Christmas is not the little guy on the shelf, but the big guy in the sleigh. After all, he’s the one who’s keeping the list. So perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at what Santa is teaching our kids.

On the upside, Santa encourages good behavior and giving to those in need (even if I have questions about whether he’s paying those elves). That giving spirit, however, is one-sided. Only the grown-ups who get to play Santa are experiencing the joy of giving.

For kids, Santa is all about getting. And certainly, research shows that kids appreciate the gifts they get (as long as those gifts are the gifts they want). But the getting part is where the problems begin. Because when kids compare notes after Christmas, they’ll probably notice that some kids got all the best gifts, while others barely scored anything at all.

How are kids supposed to make sense of this unfairness? Thankfully, the Christmas songs have it all worked out. Kids learn that Santa is up at the North Pole making a list, checking it twice, figuring out “who’s naughty or nice.” And they learn that if they end up on the wrong side of Santa’s list, they won’t be getting what they want. Meanwhile, the parents who are actually doing the giving seem extremely unlikely to withhold presents for disciplinary reasons. In one study, “those to whom the possibility was suggested seemed to be shocked, perhaps because such an action would be incongruent with the unqualified love of parents for children.” It seems safe to say that kids’ presents are more contingent on their families’ resources than their own behavior—but the Santa myth says the opposite.

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So not only are kids learning materialism through the exercise of making Christmas lists to send to Santa, but they’re also learning the meritocracy myth: that people who get what they want in life get it because they deserve it, while the people who don’t get what they want must have done something bad. So maybe the bully deserved the Xbox? And maybe the kid who didn’t get the Xbox, and who instead got the gift your family donated to a giving tree for kids in need, faced that fate because his behavior landed him on the wrong side of Santa’s list? Santa can’t be wrong, can he?

These questions are why my husband and I have never “done” Santa (or the Easter Bunny, or the tooth fairy) with our 6-year-old and 3-year-old. At least not any more than we “do” Elmo or Elsa or Thomas the Tank Engine. Instead, we’ve taught our kids the story of Saint Nicholas, stressing that Santa is “just a character, like in books or on TV.”

I should be clear that our family hasn’t banned Santa or Christmas or anything like that. We celebrate by going to church on Christmas, exchanging small gifts with one another, and, when travel isn’t too risky, visiting family in other states. We still sing along with Santa songs on the radio, and we watch Santa movies on TV.

Where we differ from many other Christian families is that we tell the kids that Christmas gifts come from real people, not Santa. And if they ask why some kids believe Santa is real, we tell them that some parents think it’s fun for their kids to pretend, and that we shouldn’t “ruin” their game. As far as I know, my kids haven’t “ruined it” for other kids. Instead, when other kids talk about Santa, my 6-year-old just smiles and nods politely, or occasionally plays along. Sometimes she tells me she wishes she believed, so she could be like the other kids, but other times she tells me she’s glad we didn’t lie.

Even without “ruining it” for other families, we’ve still gotten pushback for the decisions we’ve made. Certain family members and friends think we’re heartless for not giving our kids the “Christmas magic” they deserve. Despite that pushback, though, I’d say that not doing Santa is one of the best parenting decisions we’ve made.

First, it means we can treat Christmas primarily as a religious holiday (we’re Catholic) and not as a materialistic one. That means focusing on what Jesus taught about the likely fate of the rich man, and about not worshipping false gods. And it means being grateful for the freedom we have to practice our religion as we choose.

For us, as for many Christians, the “war on Christmas” has never been about how our friends of another faith (or no faith) greet us in December. We’re happy to say “Happy holidays” to anyone. Instead, we’re worried about Christianity becoming more obsessed with materialism and political gain. Keeping Santa out of Christmas keeps the Christ in Christmas much better than a silly fight about Starbucks cups, because Jesus taught people to raise up the least of us—and that’s exactly the opposite of the meritocratic message that Santa is so often used to spread.

Second, and more broadly, not doing Santa means there’s less pressure to compete with what other parents give their kids at Christmastime. If my kids don’t get the toy or the game or the trip to Disney World that other kids get, they won’t come away blaming themselves for not being as “good” as their friends.

Not doing Santa doesn’t get rid of the gimmes, at least not entirely. Media messages and consumerist advertising have a powerful influence on kids’ desire for the latest toys and gadgets. And, as the sociologist Allison Pugh finds in her research, kids can get their sense of dignity from having the same things as their friends.

So if my kids don’t get the toy that everyone else gets for Christmas, they’ll probably be sad and angry. But at least we can have an honest conversation about why they didn’t get it—because it was too big, or too expensive, or, in some cases, just annoying.

And that brings me to the third reason not doing Santa feels like the right decision for us. It means my husband and I can (and basically have to) have frank conversations with our kids about how privileged they are. If they do get the toy they want for Christmas, we have to tell them it’s because we have the resources to buy it, and not let them assume that it’s a reward for being “better” or, in Santa’s terms, “nicer” than the kids who didn’t get what they wanted.

These lessons about privilege seem especially important this year. In our research, my team and I have talked with so many families who are struggling to put food on the table, let alone buy gifts. My hope is that if my kids know Santa’s not real, they won’t think they’re any “better” or any “nicer” than the kids who don’t get the presents they want. And my hope is that if we have those frank conversations about where their gifts come from and why we’re able to buy things other families can’t, then my kids will also be less likely to grow up to be the kinds of people who think that the parents of all those hungry or present-less kids didn’t work hard enough or simply didn’t care.