IT’S a tried and tested parenting technique to stop children acting up during the festive season.
But according to Scottish psychologists, deploying Santa’s naughty list to deter bad behaviour can leave children feeling anxious, fearful and resentful towards their parents.
Experts warn that the threat of no presents on Christmas morning can have a “catastrophic effect” on a young child’s behaviour – rendering the parenting tactic “ineffective”.
But the chief executive of Mumsnet, one of the UK’s largest websites for parents, said most people believe that a gentle reminder of Santa’s naughty list can work wonders on a child’s attitude.
Ewan Gillion, professor of counselling, psychology and wellbeing at Glasgow Caledonian University, and managing director of First Psychology Scotland, warned that using the naughty list as blackmail could be “quite terrifying” for children.
He said: “Using Santa as a threat can cause a lot of anxiety for children because they can’t rationalise it.
“Although it is very tempting to use children’s enthusiasm for presents from Santa as a way of encouraging good behaviour or punishing bad behaviour, I would avoid it if at all possible.
“Children who believe in Santa are young and don’t have very sophisticated thinking skills. They think in a very concrete way, and therefore punishment or encouragement needs to be quite immediate and directly relevant to the situation to work.
“A younger child needs to be able to link directly their behaviour with the outcome – and talk of Santa and Christmas is just too abstract for them to do this.”
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Christine Puckering, programme director of Scottish charity Mellow Parenting, and senior research fellow at Glasgow University, specialising in child and adolescent mental health, agreed that parents should not use Santa to threaten their offspring.
“Punishment and threats are never a good parenting technique,” she said. “Would any parent really not give their child a Christmas present? So the threat of being on Santa Claus’ naughty list is empty, and children soon see through our empty threats.
“Punishments also tend to lose their value over time, and if too severe can make children resentful or fearful. Do you really want your children to fear you?
“The most powerful tool in a parent’s tool box is their attention. Give your child your time and attention and it will improve your relationship. Strange to say, that when you do that, ‘naughty behaviour’ diminishes, as much of it is designed to get your attention.”
Child behaviour specialist Ruth Edensor, who runs national Child Behaviour Direct service, said: “Christmas itself for me means unconditionally giving gifts to those I love and having a celebration of our lives together and putting a little magic into the day.
“Using Santa as a punishment will likely give children the message that our love for them is conditional and takes away the magic of this special celebration time.
“It is not realistic to think we can improve children’s behaviour long term by making them feel bad. Today’s parents need a more positive approach to parenting and more are increasingly choosing this option for the sake of their children’s wellbeing.”
Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, the parenting site that boasts ten million views per month, said most parents wouldn’t think twice about using the naughty list to bribe children.
“Most Mumsnet users think it’s fine to employ Santa’s disapproval as a threat so long as it’s a gentle reminder rather than a serious threat to withdraw all Christmas privileges. Santa is on the record as having a naughty list as well as a nice list, after all,” she said.
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