Can We Stop Being Jerks At Christmas?

Why do the holidays seem to bring out the worst in people?  Don’t answer that yet.

And why, WHY, do people insist on treating their kids like they’re not even people?  Don’t answer that yet either.

Christmas depresses me.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I love Christmas.  I love making it special for my kids, love giving presents, love making cookies, love the food, love the festivities.  This year is a mellow year for us.  We just came off the nine-year-old’s play, which was taking a lot of time, especially during that final tech week.  And my semester just ended, the same week as her play.  So right now, I’m exhaling.  Exhaling and getting ready to enjoy the holidays, but not freaking out about getting anything in particular done in time.  What will be will be, and it’ll be nice.

But it still depresses me.

Mainstream parents tend to go a little crazy this time of year.  I’ve never made any secret about the fact that I disagree with mainstream parenting in general… but never do I disagree with more fervor than at Christmas time.

I don’t have the vocabulary to express how much I hate some of what goes on during Christmas.  (And by the way:  Like they say in the movie Stepmom, hate isn’t a word I use often.  I think it’s a “perfectly acceptable word, but only to be used when I truly detest something”)  I truly detest what some parents do this time of year.

I wrote about the Santa Cams a few weeks back, but the latest thing that’s been brought to my attention is the idea of “present jail.”  In a public post that is getting praised up and down on Facebook, one mom posted a picture of a cardboard box with some presents in it, and writes:

So….we started this yesterday because one little girl refuses to listen and behave. Any present still in the box at Christmas goes put up and can only be EARNED back by good behavior. If they can follow the rules and be good for an entire day, they can return a jailed present back to the tree. Sometimes having a visual helps a lot more than just telling them. And they have to put the present in there themselves. Presents are a privilege not a right, naughty children do not get gifts for misbehaving. #meanmom

The first time a friend showed it to me, I said, “I should write about that.  But how many times, and how many ways can I say, “BE NICE TO YOUR KIDS?”  I’ve said essentially the same thing dozens, if not hundreds, of times.

And I’m saying it again, I think in the hopes that someone, somewhere will read my words, and say, “Oh.  I hadn’t thought of it that way.”  One person.  That’s all.  And maybe it’s you.  Maybe you’re the one I’m talking to.

This whole idea of earning gifts is archaic and cruel and the exact antithesis of what gift giving should be.  Gift-giving should be unconditional.  That’s the whole point.  Gifts should be something that come from the heart of the giver, with no strings, and no expectations.  Buying a gift, and then taking it away as punishment?  It ceases to be a gift … even if they “earn” it back.  You took something that should have been an expression of love and turned it into an ugly and void commodity.  Congratulations.

And why just the kids?  Why do kids need to earn their presents?  If you buy your husband a new watch, and he comes home from work grumpy one day, do you hold it ransom?  Do you tell him you bought him a present, but he doesn’t get it unless he “behaves.”?  That is not a way to treat someone you love, no matter their age.  It seems kind of ludicrous to think about doing it to a spouse or a friend or another adult loved one, so why, WHY would anyone think it’s okay to do to kids?  As horrible as I think it’d be to do to an adult (and I do indeed think it’s pretty darn horrible), I think it’s a million times worse to do it to your kids.  Your kids are still learning.  Still figuring things out.  Still working out how to deal with their feelings, and how to to navigate a world that is nuanced and tricky and at times extremely complicated.  They need parents who are going to love them through it, to be by their side, to model appropriate behavior.  And at this time of year, they need parents to show them what giving really means.  Can you imagine the sad and confusing message it sends to them about generosity to be told that they have to earn their gifts?   That their gifts can be taken away at a moment’s notice if they’re “naughty?” Naughty, by the way, is a word that should never be used for a child, or anyone, especially one who is just trying to deal with something difficult the best way they know how.  They need our HELP, not our punishment and our shame.

I’ve had a few moments over the past month or so that I’m not proud of.  I’m a human, and I’m not perfect.

Guess what?  Your kids are humans and are not perfect either.

They deserve your love, your compassion, and yes, they deserve your generosity!  Whether it’s in the form of your time, of an experience, of something handmade, of something they’ve been wanting from a store.  It feels good to give to people we love.  At least it’s supposed to!  I can’t imagine it feels good to hold presents hostage, unless it honestly makes you feel good to do something unkind, which…. isn’t right.  It’s just not.  We’re not designed that way.  We’re designed to love unconditionally, to give without expectation, to show our kids (through our words, through our actions, through our time) that they matter.  That we love them.  That we are, in fact, their biggest fans.  Their biggest supporters.  Their biggest role models.  The ones they can count on when life gets squidgy, and the ones who will stand beside them when they’re scared, telling them, without a moment’s hesitation, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.”

It feels good to love with that kind of love, because IT IS GOOD.

Nothing about buying and withholding gifts (and being so dang proud of it) fits into this model of true, unconditional love.  In fact, it downright perverts it.

Kids need and deserve our love and compassion all year round, but especially during the holidays.  Schedules are messed up, sleep is spotty, there’s extra excitement and stimulation and fancy foods, and it’s no wonder a child – or an adult – would be out-of-sorts.  LOVE THEM THROUGH IT.  Help them.  Don’t punish them.  Don’t turn gifts, something that should be fun and loving and happy, into a gross display of power and intimidation.  Don’t teach your kids that gifts should come with strings attached.  Don’t teach your kids that other people are theirs to control and manipulate.  Don’t teach your kids that the way to solve a problem is through shaming and scare tactics.

Please, please don’t.

This Christmas, be nice to your kids.  Please.  Treat them like people.  Treat them the way YOU would like to be treated.

And I’m pretty dang sure you wouldn’t want your new iPhone taken away because you were a little snippy one day.

Be nice to your kids.


This post was also syndicated and appeared on Scary Mommy, and was mentioned on The View!

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Filed under Christmas, gentle parenting, mindful parenting, parenting

16 Responses to Can We Stop Being Jerks At Christmas?

  1. Lynda Carter

    Yes to all of this!

  2. Natasha

    I wouldn’t of thought of it that way , your amazing

  3. Betty

    Sound like burned out parents trying everything they can to get their kids to mind. Kids are a little spoiled these days and what if they refuse to get their shoes on and get ready for school. I think you are very judgmental and very arrogant. Who made you the expert on parenting because you sure come off like you think your one.

    • Alan Marshall

      Kids aren’t spoiled these days. That’s a common myth, common to every generation thinking the next one is spoiled. Evidence says otherwise.

      You aren’t making much of an argument. Kids might not put their shoes on? That’s all you’ve got? And insults and name calling? You should apologize for that, it’s wrong to personally attack people when you disagree. It’s shows just how little you’ve thought about your viewpoint. I think you could benefit from thinking about it more.

    • clare hollingsworth

      There is no such thing as naughty; all behaviour is communication. If we felt like they did, we would act like they do. If you felt so crabby that you didn’t want to put your shoes on, would you rather someone shouted at you and took your toys away – would that actually make you want to do what they said – or would you feel resentful and even less like co-operating? If they took a minute to sit down next to you and put their arm around you and empathised with your bad day, let you cry for a bit on their shoulder, would you then feel better and more connected to them and more happy to do what they said?

  4. Alan Marshall

    Also, in your last sentence it’s “you’re,” not “your. “

  5. Erika

    I totally agree with you. Can’t people remember being children? I know I wasn’t perfect and I’m sure it I did things to annoy my parents, sometimes on purpose. Every kid misbehaves sometimes. Also kids get over excited in the run up to Christmas. I think this behaviour is confusing for children, we love you and we have bought you presents, oh wait you’re being naughty we will take them away again while you re earn our love.

  6. April

    I guess you haven’t spent a lot of time working with a variety of kids. A lot of them are jerks. They should not get any presents. I have worked in schools from elementary through high school, and the kids who are mean, bully others and are disrespectful usually stay that way all the way through their lives. Trust me. I have two teenagers. I have always taught them to be nice people, and they are. I have never taken presents away from them. Then there are the kids that I work with who vandalize the computers in our library and swear at me. Their parents don’t care, they’re rich. Maybe is some #meanmom stands up to her bully, the kid may learn to be nice. Here’s hoping.

  7. Candace

    Agreed. I think some people might see the gift jail as being good parenting because they would see it as offering consequences. But as you say, gifts are not a reward for good behaviour. They’re a gift.
    Of course parents need to teach their kids to be responsible and caring and that there are consequences for their behaviour. But I see the gift jail as being in the category of threatening to leave your kid in a store because they’re having a tantrum: a cruel lie. Any parent who is so out of tactics as to use those is very unlikely to follow through with the gift jail sentence anyway. So it’s just more empty threats.
    If gift jail is how you keep your kids in line, what do you do January 1?

  8. Totally agree with you!

    It becomes other seedy things – like gifts with strings attached
    quid pro quo
    and makes a bad example of true generosity.
    I also wrote on this topic this year (My friends threaten to throw their kids’ presents in the fire)

    Integrity, to me, means not only being true to who you are and what you feel, but holding to what you believe in the face of pressure to do otherwise. It means aligning your actions with your beliefs. It means doing what you know is right whether or not you think anyone is watching.

    Santa, on the other hand is always watching. He’s even recently established a secret police of spy elves to report on you. If you want to get what you are asking for, you better make him happy. Good behavior is about how you appear and who is judging you. It creates hypocrites. It rewards the appearance of goodness while ignoring true character and intentions.

    While the threat of Santa’s ire may convince your child to comply in the holiday season, it’s teaching them to behave for the wrong reasons. It’s teaching them to give in to pressure or fear for a reward. It’s the same practice predators, fascists, and cults depend on to get compliance. I want my kids to do what I tell them as an act of love and trust, not to please some judgmental old man who’s holding all the cards.

  9. Candace

    When I was a little girl, my father used to bring me treats on Friday nights after he got home from work. It was something I always appreciated, but never expected. But I expected a Christmas gift. And birthday gifts. And parties. And graduation gifts. And maybe a dinner after graduation. I was so entitled because this is what culture told me to expect.

    Let’s cut the crap. It is not like middle class kids get one or two gifts for Christmas, they get far more things than they need or even truly want. They get gifts from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends. And we don’t give out of our hearts, we give because it is expected of us–it is a cultural norm. And kids know that, too. Therefore I see no problem with parents letting their children know that disrespect will not be tolerated. You are right–children are people, which means that they have a host of negative quailities along with good ones. They can and will blantantly do things out of spite, anger or disrepect because they feel like it. Because being a jerk feels good. And if that is not checked it will filter into adulthood. And we have all met those types.
    A much better idea given your philosophy would be to avoid gift giving altogether when it is generally expected and to just give when the mood strikes you. Because I don’t remember many of the other “gifts” my father gave me, but I cherish those treats to this day.

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  11. Erica

    Sounds preachy to me. I agree that present jail is horrible but I disagree that there is no room for consequences and just “love them through it”. This is the attitude that is creating a generation of entitled people. What we need is a balance. Be kind but have boundaries.

    • jen

      Nothing about this post said that there are no boundaries, or no consequences. Treating your kids respectfully while also helping them navigate and understand boundaries are not mutually exclusive.

  12. Willow

    Wholeheartedly agree with you… Can’t believe people think they can treat gifts as bargaining tools. I had a sitter when I was a child that – while she had good intentions (and don’t so many others) – would leave me a gift beside my bed after nap time, but if I had an accident, she took it away. For a long time I really thought this was the ‘bedwetting faerie’ until I saw the gifts in a cupboard one day. It really hurt me to find out that she would purposely do that. It is dehumanizing, and children’s behaviour is often as uncontrollable as their bladders! It’s a learning process, not something you can bargain with if you want real (and healthy) results.