At least three generations of parents have used the notion of an omniscient Santa Claus to motivate their children as the holidays approach. We all know the lyrics to the instantly popular 1936 “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which translates into general agreement that pouting, shouting, crying and other forms of broad-based naughtiness will cause Santa to expunge names from his twice-checked list. Like an all-knowing deity or red-suited superego, Santa sees everything and appropriately rewards the well-behaved child. Not such a bad premise, right?
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
He's gonna find out
Who's naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
Certainly the anticipation of Santa’s visit and forthcoming toys helps young kids focus on good behavior. Parents may notice that the “Santa effect” is powerful, albeit short-term. But is this approach to shaping behavior a benign cultural tradition, or a parenting practice to be analyzed?
Jolly old St. Nick notwithstanding, here’s the rub: invoking Santa boils down to encouraging kids to behave well because they are being monitored by an external observer who will reward them when they comply. Fundamentally, this is akin to parents dispensing gold stars for following the rules or paying for good grades. Rewards can often be effective in the short term, but as a long-term strategy they can backfire. Furthermore, when the parent – or the teacher, or Santa Claus – assumes the role of controlling authority, the sole arbiter of good vs. bad, then all that follows hinges on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. Ultimately, what parents want to foster in their children – a strong work ethic, a commitment to behave responsibly even when no one is watching, a love of learning for learning’s sake – depends on their children being intrinsically motivated.
When parents rely on rewards to promote good behavior, kids do not feel supported. Instead, they feel judged and manipulated. Approval from mom or dad or Santa is conditional. Kids end up behaving or performing to impress or get the “goodie,” which impedes their development of self-determination. If good behavior is all about getting the “goods,” kids will become superficially compliant, adept at “gaming” the system, potentially dishonest. Reward systems foster competition and threaten co-operation and collaboration between siblings and/or classmates. Kids end up feeling inadequate when they fail to achieve an external reward.
How can parents steer clear of relying on rewards and instead support kids behaving well because they are intrinsically motivated to do so? Here are some ideas, based around improving the “get-out-of the-door” morning routine for a balky kindergartener, but easily adaptable to any number of behavioral challenges:
- Encourage self-monitoring and help your kids set goals. Instead of letting Santa (or mom or dad) devise the checklist and wield the pen, help your child develop guidelines for and monitor her own behavior. Be sure she knows what constitutes success by posing questions that she can answer: “If you are doing a good job of getting ready for school, what does it look like?” (“I’m putting on my clothes, not playing with my toys.” “I’m eating my breakfast, not watching TV.”) Even a kindergartner could draw a picture representing the desired behavior and give herself a check mark if she is meeting her own expectation. Ask your child to consider what she thinks she’s capable of: “Can you think of other things you could do that would make it easier to get ready in the morning?”
- Connect effort to achievement (not rewards), and focus your child on her own pleasure in achieving: “When you tried hard to get dressed quickly, you succeeded. You look like you’re proud of being able to get dressed without my help. Because you are all ready for school, we don’t have to rush to be on time. How does it feel to be able to make it easier for both of us to have more fun/less arguing in the morning?"
- Avoid labeling with “person” praise; use “I” statements to praise the process: Instead of “Good girl…you got dressed so fast” try “I appreciate how you thought about setting your clothes out last night; that made it much easier to get dressed quickly even though you still felt sleepy this morning.” Or “I think it felt good to both of us to start the day this way.” In general, telling kids they are the “best player on the team” or the “smartest math student” can set them up to view their worth as dependent on always succeeding and cause them to be less able to persist after setbacks.
In the long run, what motivates a child to do the right thing – even when no one is watching – will need to be his own conscience. Parent and teachers should foster intrinsic motivation whenever possible. We want to help kids know the joy of being “good for goodness’ sake!”