Santa, Please Stop Here! 4 Santa Faux Pas and How to Avoid Them

Image Source: Katie Krause

I love the holidays. I love the traditions I grew up with – that I continue with my own family – like cutting down our own tree each year. I love the new traditions we have started, like taking my birthday off at the end of November to put up Christmas lights and decorate. Being able to share these traditions our young children (2 yo and 4 yo), makes this time of year seem even more magical. While all families have their own magical moments that are important to them, I thought of one I’d like to share that has shifted for me over the years – Santa. Not every family believes or celebrates this tradition, but for those that do I wanted to take a few minutes to share some thoughts about some of the Santa-related issues I’ve been asked my perspective on by others

Scared of Santa

One of our children’s favorite traditions is to visit Santa, multiple times! Since the photos are free, and it’s nearby, we usually go several times in December. While the screaming baby on Santa’s lap may bring a few laughs, consider what that experience is like for the child. When an adult places a child on a stranger’s lap and leaves them there when they are clearly upset what message is that sending? Did you know that the brain wires for trust and mistrust during the first years of life? We want our children to be able to trust that we will keep them safe, be responsive to their needs, and honor their feelings. Is this really a big deal? Well, when children have their needs met (like, being comforted after a scary situation) routinely, it ensures the wiring in the brain will be laid down for trust. Dr. Pam Schiller says it best, “One way or another, the brain is going about its work of wiring.”

“But you do not understand, it’s a tradition to get that photo.” I hear you. Here are some other ways to still get that photo, without reinforcing a negative experience.

  • Let your child sit on a bench next to Santa (very common now), or stand next to Santa at a comfortable distance.
  • Join in – rather than handing off your child to Santa, hop in the picture too, keeping your little one safely in your arms.
  • Visit multiple times – The place we go offers a basic photo for no cost. If we go after school, there is never a line. If needed, we could probably spend a few minutes to get the kiddos a bit more comfortable.
  • Try to keep calm– the more stressed or frustrated you get, the less comfortable your children are going to be.
  • Ask your child what they prefer, “Would you like to sit or stand next to Santa? Do you want me to go with you?” Even children that are not yet verbal are able to make choices like this.
  • Prepare your child for the experience in advance. Show them pictures or videos and talk to them about what will happen. When you arrive, continue to narrate the experience for them.
Image Source: Katie Krause

Presents from Santa

Ever wonder why Santa brought you underwear, but he brought your neighbor a Nintendo?  Research has shown that children as young as four years old notice differences in social class (Heberle & Carter, 2020).  So children that are still young enough to believe in Santa may very well be able to notice the differences between the cost and quantity of presents ‘Santa’ has brought their friends. A great suggestion is that ‘Santa’ only brings one (not expensive) present and maybe fills the stockings.  Help your fellow families who might not be able to splurge over the holidays and give yourself the credit for that awesome present.

Santa is watching

We have been struggling with this one in my house lately. My husband has been doing a lot of the Santa threats, and I’ve been joining in. It might sound something like this: “Santa isn’t going to bring you presents if you don’t do xyz”, “Santa only brings presents for good kids”, “I’m going to tell Santa not to bring you a present this year”.  I even started singing ‘Santa Claus is coming to Town” the other day….yuck! What was I thinking?! I love Christmas…why on earth would I want to turn Santa into someone that can’t look past a bad day, or cancel Christmas?!

While these threats might produce a quick result, the Santa threats don’t work for long, and are often empty threats. They can also leave children feeling scared, sad, or confused. Are you really not going to give your children the present you bought them? And even if you did, young children are not old enough to connect a behavior they did a day, a week or even a month before Christmas to not getting a present Christmas morning. 

Is it not ok to cry, or be upset, or feel frustrated during the holiday season? Remember that negative behaviors are way children communicate a need and how they show us they are struggling with something. Also keep in mind, as an adult, you probably feel sad, frustrated, mad, scared, and a range of other emotions that we often view as ‘bad’ when children feel this way. You’ve had a bit more time to learn how to appropriately cope with those emotions (or sadly…how to punch them back down and put on a happy face, which is certainly not what we want to teach our children). 

Check out our other blog for some great tips on handling your kiddos Temper-tantrums and try to use Time-In J  https://learningchildblog.com/2020/05/01/temper-tantrums-and-time-in/

Is Santa even real?

There are lots of opinions for families and even from the experts regarding the idea of Santa.  Some of us just love the magic of Christmas, and Santa is a big part of that. I’ve got some friends that go all-out moving that darn little elf Every. Single. Day. However, some families are very much against the idea of Santa. Families feel that they are lying to their children if they include Santa in their holiday traditions. 

The key here is to really do what feels right for your family. Yes, some adults look back on their childhood and may have felt lied to or deceived by their parents about Santa. Others look back and have amazing memories of the magic. I’ll never forget being amazed the year I got a wooden desk with my name on it. Santa was truly magical if he could get in my house without a chimney, bring this huge thing along with him and he really did know my name!

We have no way of knowing if, or how, our children will remember these early years. We cannot stress out over trying to create ‘perfect memories’ of our children, or ourselves.  Each family needs to focus on what is meaningful for us, and be mindful of what our intentions are for the various activities we do – or do not – decide to participate in.

At the end of the day, or the end of the holiday season, the thing our children are going to remember the most is the love of their family and time spent together.

Here are some ideas you and your family might enjoy doing together.

Sesame Street: Kids Talk About Holidays

Sesame Street: The Power of We Holiday Party

4-H Holidays at Home

I wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season!

KATIE KRAUSE EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Kara Kohel, Linda Reddish, and Lynn DeVries, Early Childhood Extension Educators

Resource: Heberle, A. E., & Carter, A. S. (2020). Young children’s stereotype endorsement about people in poverty: Age and economic status effects. Children and Youth Services Review108, 104605.

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Temper Tantrums and Time-In

Image source: Reposted with permission  www.littleravenheart.com/

Say the words “temper tantrum” to a parent or childcare provider and it is almost guaranteed to elicit a strong response.  Picture this: A toddler wants his favorite Buzz cup for dinner.  Instead, he receives the Woody cup and plate.  In response, he kicks his feet and pushes his plate of food onto the floor, all the while arching his back, crying, and screaming.  It seems like we have all been there at one time or another, and felt frustration in trying to find a response that will not only help the child calm down, but will also help reduce the intensity and frequency of such melt-downs.

Understanding emotional responses (yours and theirs):

Adults often become distressed by a child’s intense emotional reactions and expressions, which in turn causes adults to want to scold, reprimand, lecture, ignore, or consequate such outbursts.  The problem is, people of all ages need permission and space to have emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant.  Young children need to learn how to experience and express all of their emotions.  They need a safe, secure, regulated (calm) adult to provide guidance and co-regulation. 

Three important components of emotion management:

  1. In humans, the attachment figure’s internal state also regulates the child’s internal state during most of the first THREE years of life.  It is important for the primary caretaker to remain calm, both as a form of modeling, as well as a form of supporting the co-regulation process.
  2. The health of the bond between child and primary caretaker depends on the caregiver’s attunement, emotional availability, continuity of care, and responsiveness.
  3. A child forms his primary attachment during times of distress.

Let’s revisit the scenario from the opening paragraph. A young child, age two, is throwing a temper tantrum because he did not receive the cup and plate he wanted for dinner. It is appropriate for the adult caregiver to correct the inappropriate actions, such as kicking, screaming, and throwing food on the floor.  However, while correcting the inappropriate actions, the adult caregiver may also inadvertently reprimand the emotion.  It is important to remember actions and emotions are two separate and distinct things.  Just like you, a child has every right to have emotions, including disappointment, frustration, and anger.   And who are we to say what a two-year-old can and cannot feel upset about?  (I think not getting his favorite cup at dinner is a perfectly appropriate reason for a two-year old to feel disappointed or angry.)  Our job as the adult is to help teach children how to handle such strong feelings.

The following table explains the unintended result caused by common adult responses to young children’s intense emotional outbursts.

Adult responseResult
Ignore the behavior   Put a young child in time-outChildren rely on their primary attachment figure for needed emotional regulation.  Without this option they do the best they can with what they have and know. This explains why so many young children escalate and become even more out-of-control when ignored or left in a corner alone.  They truly don’t know what to do or how to calm themselves and become even more anxious, overwhelmed, and frustrated. Children also internalize the belief that not all emotions are acceptable or can be shared with others.
Scold, yell, get angryA dysregulated adult disrupts the child’s internal regulation system, which can lead a child to withdraw or act out more.
  Lecture, rationalizeWhen humans experience strong emotions, they are primarily operating in their “emotion” brain and have difficulty accessing or using their “thinking” brain.  This is most certainly not the time for words or attempts at logic.In addition, young children are still developmentally “in the moment” and reliant on adult physical support and guidance, not a bunch of words.

Appropriate responses that provide connection and teaching: 

  • Validate feelings.  “Yeah, I know it’s sad, buddy.  You really like the Buzz cup.  It’s your favorite.”
  • Set boundaries by providing a time-in.  “Throwing food is never OK.”  Stay close and move whatever is still in close proximity to ensure he does not continue throwing more things on the floor.  If he calms and accepts your help, return his food – but stay there to intercept any additional attempts at throwing.  Intervening and simply preventing the ongoing misbehavior is the best consequence and strategy for teaching appropriate boundaries and behavior. 
  • Be real.  Children need some ways of expressing feelings; they are not robots.  What are you willing to allow?  He may continue to whimper.  He may continue to resist using the Woody cup.  He may sulk or pout for a bit.  These reactions are all developmentally appropriate, and a socially acceptable way for a toddler to show strong feelings.
  • Teach regulation through co-regulation.  If his strong emotions continue and have gotten the best of him, help him out.  Pick him up, offer comfort and attunement, and “download” your calm into him.  When he is ready, put him back in the highchair, stay close (time-in), and return to mealtime.

Time-in is an incredibly successful behavior management strategy for young children as it provides the co-regulation they need in order to establish their own, internal system of self-regulation.  Time-in puts you in a position to model, shape and teach appropriate behaviors (i.e., with you sitting right there, a small child is prevented from continuing to toss his plate, cup, etc. onto the floor).

Discipline and consequences are not synonymous with punishment.  Discipline means to teach, and a consequence is simply the result or effect of an action or condition.  You do not have to feel as if his wrong-doing needs to be punished.  Correcting a young child’s misbehavior by being present and providing guidance is sufficient.

References:

  • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy with Toddlers: Improving Attachment and Emotion Regulation by Cheryl B. McNeil, Emma I. Girard, Jane R. Kohlhoff, Nancy M. Wallace, and Susan S. J. Morgan
  • Managing Emotional Mayhem by Dr. Becky Bailey
  • Harvard Center on the Developing Child (website)

CARRIE GOTTCHALK EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Amy Napoli, University of Nebraska Extension Specialist, Sarah Dankenbring, Amanda Cue, Early Childhood Mental Health Therapist

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