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David Bly: Santa undermines good parenting principles

For such a jolly fellow, Santa Claus sends a grim message: Get on my bad side and you’re off the gift list. At best, you’ll get a lump of coal.

For such a jolly fellow, Santa Claus sends a grim message: Get on my bad side and you’re off the gift list. At best, you’ll get a lump of coal.

Apart from the fact that most kids these days — and probably their parents — have never seen a lump of coal, this whole Santa shtick is rife with bad psychology that is contrary to principles of sound parenting.

First of all, the naughty-or-nice approach supports the idea that good behaviour results in material rewards, when we should be teaching children (and adults) that doing the right thing is its own reward. “If you are good, Santa will bring you presents” puts a price on moral conduct.

The negative side of that equation — be bad, get nothing — is hardly a lesson in unconditional love and confuses the issue, which is that consequences of bad behaviour should be related to the offence.

Besides, kids know it’s a scam, because it’s an unenforced threat. In all the years since Santa Claus came to dominate the Christmas season, has any kid ever had his or her Christmas presents revoked for naughtiness? I doubt it. It violates a big rule for parents: Don’t make empty threats — they dissuade children from taking their parents seriously.

Then there’s the idea that Santa is watching every move every kid makes. Who does he think he is, Communications Security Establishment Canada? Big privacy issues here.

The word “Scrooge” might be popping into a few minds at this point, but it shouldn’t. I’m not anti-Santa.

Never believed in him, though. As a member of a large family with a small income, I would have had to accept that Santa was prejudiced in favour of the upper classes. How else would I have explained my haul of a new sweater, one small toy and a few treats when the kid down the street — who was far from angelic — got a three-speed bike, an electric train and a dozen or so lesser gifts? It doesn’t compute.

That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy Santa Claus. In fact, I believe we enjoyed him more than the more-affluent but less-fortunate kids. We waited for him on Christmas Eve and were never disappointed. When we heard the sleigh bells, we would rush to the window to see him pull into the yard. He would jump out of his sleigh — red suit, white beard, black boots and all — with a big bag over his shoulder, burst through the door and pass out goodies.

The fact that we knew him the rest of the year as Grandpa took away nothing from the experience, but made it all the more special. He loved us unconditionally. We wanted to be better people because of his example and his love, not because of some spreadsheet of positives and negatives.

The reindeer pulling the sleigh? Grandpa’s patient horses — with deer antlers attached to their bridles.

Our children didn’t believe in Santa Claus, either. They never had to wrestle with the dilemma of seeing multiple Santas and trying to decide which one was real — they wholeheartedly enjoyed them all.

It saved awkward explanations when a neighbour dressed as Santa made a visit with treats — after he had imbibed a few treats himself.

“That Santa smelled funny,” said one of the brood after the jolly man had left, a little unsteadily.

Some parents enlist their kids as Santa’s helpers and teach them the joy of giving, and Santa remains a delightful Christmas decoration, not the focus of the season. That will do more to create happy memories and teach positive lessons than any threats of “you better watch out, you better not cry.”

Some of my grandchildren believe in the reality of Santa Claus, and some don’t. It requires a little diplomacy at family gatherings, but for all of them, the magic of the season doesn’t depend on Santa’s reality. The magic isn’t about reality. But the wonderful feeling of giving is very real, and if Santa promotes that, all the better.

So I’m OK with Santa.

But that Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer thing. Someone is ridiculed and rejected because he’s different, and he’s accepted only when he proves to be useful to the crowd and popular with the boss?

Nasty stuff, that.