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“Santa, I Have a Big Problem with Your Naughty or Nice List. Here’s Why.”

The Naughty or Nice List creates an extra layer of anxiety for kids like my son who struggle to fit into a neurotypical world that sees their behavior as bad instead of what it actually is — a cognitive disability that causes a host of challenges. What if, instead of a punitive score keeper, Santa were a role model who saw and celebrated the nice in every child?

When my son was 4 years old — before his autism and ADHD were known to us — he impulsively poked his classmate in the eye with an unsharpened pencil. When the boy’s nanny arrived at pick up, she yelled at my son. He buried his face in my shoulder and began sobbing. When he looked back up at me, he sadly said, “Mommy, I don’t think I’m a good man.”

This was just the beginning of his struggle with self-esteem. From my experience, constantly hearing that you and your behavior are unacceptable is the norm for kids like my son who are easily distractible, impulsive, and dysregulated.

Kids with ADHD are constantly scolded and told to sit down, calm down, stop doing this or that, focus, and to just listen. After a while, they get the message that they are bad kids.

Ho-Ho-Hold the Stress of Idle Threats

My son is 8 years old now and still sees himself as a bad kid. With autism, everything is seen in binary terms. Things are either black or white. People and situations are either good or bad. The idea of a gray — or in-between — area is a concept that does not come easily to him.

The Naughty or Nice List creates an extra layer of anxiety for kids like my son who struggle to fit into a neurotypical world that sees their behavior as bad instead of what it actually is — a cognitive disability that causes a host of challenges.

[Read This Next: Why Praise Is So Important for Kids with ADHD]

Throughout the month of December, Christmas songs tell them that Santa is coming and they better be good. On top of that, Santa watches them while they sleep — even their dreams need to be nice! To be sure there are no lapses in behavior, Santa sends an Elf on the Shelf to spy on them and report their findings back to him. And if the children aren’t being good? No presents, only coal in their stocking.

When I was growing up, none of this really bothered me. I thought I was a good kid so there was nothing to worry about. For an atypical child like my son, however, these ideas are extremely stress-inducing because he takes them very seriously.

Every day since the beginning of the month he has repeatedly checked in with me about how he’s doing, constantly asking, “Mommy am I naughty? I think I’ve been naughty.” I’ve tried to explain that even good kids are “naughty” sometimes. That no one is perfect and cannot expect to be perfect. It temporarily calms him but it never lasts long. The obsessive worries return as soon as a teacher reprimands him or worse, he loses a privilege at school.

Our Elf isn’t An Undercover Agent

Some may ask why we even encourage the concept of Santa if his potential judgment causes such concern for our son. Let me note here that my husband and I do not emphasize the need for extra good behavior at this time of year. Our Elf on the Shelf (who our son named “Doke”) simply appears in a wacky new spot every morning to entertain us and does not return to Santa until Christmas. We stress the “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” side of Santa; not the “He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice” side.

In our family, Santa is a beloved tradition. Our son derives much joy from participating in the role play and fantasy associated with him, in much the same way he does with his stuffed animals and imaginary play figures. But nonetheless, he has absorbed the message that prevails at this time of year — that it’s actually possible to mess up so badly that Santa (and your presents) will pass you by. I truly resent the Naughty or Nice List.

From my perspective as the mother of a special needs child, it simply sets an expectation that my child cannot ever meet. So I propose that we shape a different narrative of Santa as a man who sees children for who they truly are, not how they behave. A man who understands that today more and more kids are diagnosed with disabilities that cause behavioral challenges and that some face personal struggles at home that cause them to act out in ways that are a call for help, not random willfulness. A man who believes that even “naughty” kids deserve a gift on Christmas.

On Christmas morning my son will receive the gifts he asked Santa for, not because he was good this year and not because the darn elf gave Santa a good report. He will receive them because Santa knows he tried his best and that in his heart he is, indeed, a good man.

[Great Read from Dr. Larry Silver: How to Vanquish a Child’s Low Self-Esteem]

Updated on December 26, 2019

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