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
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
It’s that time of year again, when parents everywhere are telling their kids that they should be good so Santa will bring them presents. It’s so easy and effective. Without really thinking about it, I found myself using this on Clementine and James the other day. They started to whine, and I whipped out the ol’ Santa Claus threat: “Do you want Santa to bring you presents?” They looked alarmed and stopped whining immediately. (It lasted for about five minutes.) The closer we get to Christmas, the more potent the Santa Claus threat becomes.
But now that I’ve adopted Stoicism as a framework for parenting, I’ve started to think maybe the Santa Claus threat isn’t a great idea. It’s not that I have a problem with them getting a few gifts from Santa, but lately I’ve been trying to teach my kids that virtue is its own reward. We don’t behave well just so we can get things from other people. We behave well because it’s the right thing to do. Doesn’t Santa Claus kind of undermine this concept?
I guess it all goes back to the debate about giving kids material rewards for good behavior. For instance, should you pay them to get good grades, or give them a treat if they clean their rooms? Or should you just expect them to behave because that’s what they’re supposed to do?
For adults, we have a clear answer: you should value virtue for its own sake alone. Nothing else matters as much as being wise and virtuous. So this is the undisputed endpoint of ethical education, which we should work toward with our children. But I think there could be several ways of getting there. Given young children’s limited understanding of abstract concepts, it seems appropriate to give them concrete rewards until they can understand the abstract rewards of goodness for its own sake.
However, even if we do give them material rewards for good behavior, I think we should definitely start teaching virtue for its own sake at an early age. Recently I’ve started emphasizing the warm, fuzzy feeling we all get when we do something really nice. When Clementine sweetly invites James to play with her, for instance, I make sure she recognizes how good it feels. “Doesn’t it feel good to be kind?” I ask her. “Aren’t you proud of yourself? You are really a good big sister.”
One thing I want to watch out for, though, is pinning her sense of goodness on other people’s reactions. A couple times I pointed out to Clementine how happy her brothers were when she was kind to them. I wanted to reinforce her desire to be a good sister. But then I realized that I don’t actually want her sense of kindness to be based on other people’s happiness. That is just setting her up for guilt when she can’t make other people happy. I want my kids to understand, from a young age, that they are not responsible for other people’s emotions. As Stoics know, none of us can actually make someone else happy, no matter how good and kind we are. And no matter how much we want to.
The same goes for a child trying to make her parents happy. Most children naturally want to please their parents at some level, and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. I certainly do tell my kids that I’m proud of them when they behave well, because (1) it’s true and (2) I think it does encourage them to be good. But I’m also trying to be cautious with this link. I don’t want to teach them to do things for anyone else’s approval, even mine. I want to teach them to do things for their own approval.
As they get older, I won’t be around all the time to look over their shoulder. They will have to make decisions for themselves. And if they are used to doing things for other people’s approval, they might depend on the approval of whoever happens to be around them. Unless they happen to be surrounded by Stoic philosophers, depending on other people’s approval is not a good thing.
So I try to teach them to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do. By catching Clementine being good, I can emphasize that wonderful feeling of being a good person–not because it makes anyone else happy, but because it makes her happy and proud of herself. And I also want her to eventually understand that material rewards are merely secondary to virtue itself. She shouldn’t mind her parents just to get gifts from Santa; she should mind because she wants to be a good person.
I’m guessing that by the time she is old enough to understand virtue in the abstract, she will have already stopped believing in Santa Claus. That’s why Santa is for kids, right? Because adults already know that we usually don’t get material rewards for being good–the only gift we are guaranteed is being proud of our own virtuous actions. But while our kids are still growing up, it probably won’t hurt anything to give them a few presents from Santa. As long as we remind them that it’s not all about the gifts. Santa Claus may be coming to town…but let’s still be good for goodness’ sake.