Q: This is a very hard time of year. I don’t know what to do about my kids’ out-of-control behavior. It’s stressful. They believe in Santa, so we lie to them. We’ve introduced the Elf on the Shelf, so when they’re bad, I tell them the Elf will let Santa know and they’ll be in trouble, maybe not getting any presents. I don’t know if it’s OK to threaten them, but it scares them enough that I just need to use it to have some control. The whole Santa fantasy seems like such a big scam but I don’t know any other way to control them. I’d love to hear your opinion or advice.

A: A very timely question. It’s that time of year when we include Santa in our celebrations, even if we might not want to be manipulated by consumerism. Understanding more about the actual historical figure might help you feel more relaxed about our holiday traditions. Santa has been an integral part of many childhood experiences, and more recently the “Elf on the Shelf” has emerged as an addition to some holiday rituals.

Suffice to say, there is a mythological character called Santa or Father Christmas in some European countries dating back many centuries. If we choose, we can research the history, sharing the chronology with our children to provide context. Or, we can simply indulge in the fantasy of a reindeer-drawn sleigh, overflowing with Santa’s bag of toys, and the round shape of a magical, white-bearded man in a red suit, traveling across the night skies. Santa Claus represents something exuberant, imaginative, generous and, yes, commercial. Perhaps it’s more about our need to reinforce some of our cherished principles, those of childhood innocence, of selfless giving, of kindness, fairness, and unconditional love. What I’m certain of is our increasing need to have something greater than ourselves to defer to when raising our children. The Elf on the Shelf is the little “helper” that represents mischief and fun or, apparently, a coercive figure enforcing good behavior in children. If this elf’s purpose is reporting to Santa who has been “bad or good,” there’s a serious problem with this tradition. That indicates Santa Claus is now transformed into the disciplinarian, wielding power to ensure children’s acceptable behavior. When parents coerce their children into avoiding meltdowns, or battles with their siblings, with the promise of rewards, this is a damaging approach. It certainly assures the results we want, manipulating our children to behave the way we want. However, it doesn’t teach the important values of simply doing what’s right because that matters.

My understanding of the Elf’s role: “Every year at Christmas, Santa sends his elves to watch you. And they go back and tell him who’s been bad and who’s been good. The Elf on the Shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do. The Elf on the Shelf is watching you, each and every Christmas.” Thus, any time a child misbehaves, he’s reminded the elf is keeping an eye on him. What’s most important is having strong connection with our children throughout the entire year, thus making space for mystical holiday traditions to create fun opportunities, joy in giving and doing for others, a sense of community. As much as it may help in “controlling” your children’s behavior, there’s no “reprieve” for the month of December by exerting threats of rewards and punishment through the Elf’s influence with Santa. Instead, the Elf can be a playful addition to a household, rather than a character to manipulate good behavior, or to help acquire as many gifts as possible. It’s about imagination and love. Consider what you want to teach your children with your family’s holiday traditions and the values most important to you. Although the Elf on the Shelf can be a very tempting parenting tool, it’s important not to use him to trick or threaten children. We certainly don’t want to eliminate Santa or the Elf on the Shelf from Christmas.

Personally, I have no problem with helping children believe, for although there comes a time they realize you’ve been providing the gifts, there’s a certain magic for children holding on to those beliefs. My own childhood, and that of my children, was never tainted by these apparent “untruths”; I disagree with those who are against supporting these myths. Whether or not you keep Santa alive in your family, there’s no right or wrong, good or bad; rather, each family must decide what works best for them and choose accordingly. That said, I do have a problem with exerting power over our children to enforce good behavior, manipulating their belief in mythological characters, such as Santa. Threatening them that Santa or the Elf on the Shelf is watching them, to stop the sibling rivalry or the meltdown, is damaging. It might be helpful in the moment to curtail unwanted behavior; yet, this is a harmful practice, being the easiest, yet worst, way to get our children to behave the way we want. If we want our children to acquire intrinsic control, doing what’s right for its own sake, this punitive approach teaches them the exact opposite: to behave according to the extrinsic rewards they will receive.

The poignant poem of St. Nicholas’s visit on Christmas Eve depicts the dad awaking to a noise he hears outside. As the rest of the family sleeps, the father is treated to Santa’s visit. This magical figure doesn’t appear for the children, but for the father, who watches and giggles with joy. As the poem says: “St. Nick soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.” Thus, in the midst of adult responsibilities, Santa appears to adults to relieve them of their anxieties, bringing out the child in them.

I propose balancing the magic of Santa’s visit to bestow gifts with showing our children the importance of giving. I wish I could say it will be easy during the holidays, with the accompanying activities, increased excitement, stimulation, and many changes. There will always be challenges. My own children taught me more than I could have imagined, as soon as I slowed down enough to share the view through their lens. Even the smallest detail about Christmas brought them such abundant joy and excitement. Expecting them to contain their energy would have been impossible, and certainly would have deprived our family of the understanding that they were teaching us to enjoy the simple pleasures of this season. For me, I’ve always needed that mythical tradition in my life. Despite the historical origins and his shortcomings, more compelling was always the magic for my children. I wanted Santa for them, and for me.

Happy holidays!