It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Santa Claus, Enforcer

mean-santa“And if you’re not good, you won’t get any presents at Christmas.”

Poppy is explaining the mysteries of Christmas, and Santa Claus in particular, to a very interested Rosie and Daniel.

“No presents? If you’re bad, you doesn’t get any presents?” Daniel digs a bit deeper. I think the boy realizes he has some cause for concern here.

Poppy is firm. “No. No presents for bad children.” She lifts her shoulder and crouches a bit, places her hands beside her cheeks, spreads the fingers, her eyes wide and shifting from side to side, the very posture of sneaky watchfulness. As imagined by a three-year-old, at any rate. Poppy tells her stories as much with her body as with her words. It’s a treat to watch her in action. “Santa Claus watches you aaaaaalllll the time, and you got to be good, and if you’re not?” She stands up suddenly, straight and tall, and slaps her hands together, cleaning imaginary sins and misdemeanors off her palms.

“You don’t get ANYTHING AT ALL!”

I work in a daycare. I have worked in a daycare for closing in on two decades now. I have heard about Santa each and every year. Now, when I was growing up, Santa brought one present. One modest present, at that. The rest were from identifiable people in my life. The big present? The one I’d been waiting for with bated breath for ever and ever? THAT one came from my mother, thank you so very much. I’m thinking she wanted the credit for her efforts. And whyever not?! Let some imaginary dude steal your thunder? Pfft.

So, Santa was part of my childhood Christmases, but not a big one. Lots of other things stood out more.

Thus, I didn’t ‘do’ Santa much with my own children. It didn’t rob us of the joy of the season. At all. In fact, I’ve argued before that shifting the emphasis may even have improved it. (Not, of course, that you can’t shift the emphasis and still have Santa.)

Not that I’ve ever once even considered disabusing a daycare tot of their belief in Santa. That’s totally their parents’ call, and I support whatever decisions they’ve made.


This year? It’s because of Poppy, I know. That “nothing if you’re bad” conversation has happened routinely over the past couple of weeks. The message is obviously being hammered home hard from someone in her life, and there is no doubt it is being absorbed. And the more I hear it, the more it rings in my ears like a really obvious — and not very kind or loving — form of manipulation.

“Be good or else!”

Behavioural blackmail, emotional blackmail. A threat.

Not, I confess, that Poppy seems traumatized by it. She’s more excited, far as I can make out. Excited and intrigued. And, of course, there is no worry at all that her tree will be barren of gifts come Christmas morning.

(Which makes it a completely empty threat, doesn’t it? This is a good thing for her tender little psyche, but, as we all know, bad parenting strategy. Technically, anyway. I give this one a Bad Parenting pass, because it’s more a game than anything, and most kids figure that out soon enough. Has Poppy figured it out, or does she just not see how awful the reality would be, were the threat to actually happen? The latter, I’m quite sure. She doesn’t really get it, for all it intrigues her.)

There’s no worry at all, even if it were a real threat. She’s three, of course, but she’s cheerful, cooperative, friendly. She is in no way a ‘handful’. (*cough*unlike Daniel*cough, cough*)

Down through my daycare years, pretty nearly all the kids have heard about Santa. And let me underline, that though I’m not a huge propagator of the Santa myth, I’m not opposed to it. I’m neutral, I guess. I’m sure most children get the “better be good!” warnings, too, but no one has made as much of them as Poppy. No child, ever. In close to twenty years. Is this a function of her character — does she like the mystery, does it tweak her (greatly reduced) tendency to anxiety, is she duly impressed by the need to behave? Has she taken a mild suggestion and just run with it in a big way? Or is someone in her life really, really working this idea?

I think it’s the latter.

And, for the first time in my daycare career, Santa Claus is making me uncomfortable.

This week, I let a little wry humour peek out as I stepped into that conversation.

Daniel was looking a bit worried. “Santa won’t give you anything?”

I ruffled his hair. “Well, you don’t get anything from Santa, no. He’s sort of fickle that way. But the people who know you and really love you? They love you even when you do bad stuff. You will get presents from them.”

I tap Poppy on her nose. “And you, missy? You are not a bad girl. Of course there will be presents for you!!”

And if I’ve thereby completely undermined the Family Child Control Strategy for December?

I. Don’t. Care.


December 3, 2013 - Posted by | Christmas, parenting, parents, Poppy |


  1. You are awesome. And I’m so glad you’re writing again.

    Aw, gee. Thank you. Yes, it’s nice to be back!

    Comment by Suzanne Lucas | December 3, 2013 | Reply

  2. Yup. Here too, with the heightened Santa Awareness this year. I think partly it’s a function of the childrens’ age – both Pixie and Louis are 3.5 now, and they are hyper-conscious of The Rules – who is following The Rules, who’s job it is to enforce The Rules, and so on.

    I’ve noticed that both of them positively delight in telling the 2 year olds that if they don’t behave they won’t get anything from Santa… but of course they don’t seem to be holding themselves to the same standard.

    Comment by Hannah | December 3, 2013 | Reply

  3. Clever – you’ve defused the situation without dismantling the myth! I haven’t fully decided but I think I won’t be teaching my children to believe in Santa; I remember how devastated I was when I found out it wasn’t real (and the Tooth Fairy too – absolutely gutted).

    Comment by May | December 3, 2013 | Reply

  4. Aw, that’s great. When we were young Santa never brought us anything, it was all family and friends, and I much prefer this for my family too. (My mother never discouraged the myth – she used to say “well, I’ve never seen him” when asked about him, but we never did anything for Santa like cookies and milk, either.) I love the message that the people who love the tots will love them even if they do bad stuff!

    And I second the thought, I’m so happy to have you back in my RSS reader! 😀

    Comment by myrheille | December 3, 2013 | Reply

  5. We love make-believe here..leprechauns, fairies, Santa, the list is extensive… Yet not once have we mentioned the Be Good Or Else rule because really, I’d NEVER follow through and also contrary to a sacred tenant of our home, “If you won’t do it, don’t say it!”. It’s such a foreign concept to my son that at 8 years old he still had NO idea that Santa might not bring presents if he didn’t behave. I caught him debating the point passionately with a friend just last week. (It may be our last Christmas of belief, but he’s going out fighting!)

    I love your approach and support it whole-heartedly. Santa has always been a lovely add-on to the season. Why should he get so much power and accolades? I love it!

    Comment by Chelsea | December 3, 2013 | Reply

  6. Question for you – we’ve done Santa in kind of a playful way over here, and my son at 6 still firmly believes. He’s also very much a believer in rules, and is devastated by any kind of betrayal, so now I’m worried about how he will react when he finds out the truth. Any thoughts on how to ease the transition for him?

    Comment by Kathryn | December 3, 2013 | Reply

  7. Growing up, Santa brought one (unwrapped) gift for each of us and filled our stockings; everything else was from friends and family. We kept this tradition with our own family (although sometimes I wrapped Santa’s gifts, so that I didn’t have to worry as much about someone finding them ahead of time).

    I remember my mom telling me that in some families, “Santa” brought everything, that if you sent them a gift, they’d replace the tag so it said “from Santa.”

    The “Elf on a Shelf” wasn’t around (or at least wasn’t as well publicized) when my kids were little (they’re now 28, 25 and 23); I have mixed feelings about this practice.

    Kathryn, before the Santa beans are spilled, it’s good to teach the joy of giving. When I learned the truth about Santa, I got to help fill stockings (I was the oldest), and felt honored to be trusted with the secret. Then there are lots of factual accounts of St. Nick, stories about how the holiday is celebrated in different countries. Maybe when the time seems right (when you detect doubt or get questions), let him know that some families celebrate differently, but the “spirit of giving” lives on.

    What galls me is all the advertising for “stocking stuffers.” It sorta gives away the secret, you know? But I guess by the time a kid is perceptive enough to pick up on that, the cat’s almost out of the bag.

    Comment by MargieK | December 3, 2013 | Reply

  8. When I was 3 or 4 I heard this threat over and over. I tried my best to be good, but it was a huge challenge for me. On Christmas morning I opened my stocking and was thrilled. Then all of that pent up energy and struggle came out. I turned into the biggest brat my parents had ever seen. My parent told me that if I wasn’t good Santa would come back and take my toys away. I didn’t believe them. I had already been good. I had the toys.

    My parents didn’t know that one of their friends decided to surprise us. They sent Santa to our house. When the doorbell rang I ran to answer it. The moment I saw Santa I screamed and ran to my room. I locked myself in and refused to come out until he was gone (I did specify that he should leave my toys). I was traumatized. I’m guessing that Santa still remembers my reaction.

    Threats aren’t the best way to teach children to behave.

    Comment by Jessica | December 3, 2013 | Reply

  9. We do Santa at our house…with glee. We leave cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. Henry is excited and bubbling with anticipation in the lead up to christmas, Benjamin is largely oblivious at two…..but we don’t resort to the threats about Santa only coming to good children, because all children are good, some just have bad behaviour at times.

    At nearly 7 he’s getting the gossip from other kids that Santa isn’t real, that its just your mum and dad. I ask him what he thinks and when he says he believes…then I say that’s all that matters.

    As for presents….we mix it up some from us some from Santa, but we always take care and thought to ensure the boys shop for a gift for each other and that the family gifts are distributed by the boys, so they understand that its not just about getting, christmas is about giving.

    Comment by Tammy | December 4, 2013 | Reply

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