Don’t Cancel Christmas! (Why This Consequence Won’t Result in Better Child Behavior)
“Presents are made for the pleasure of who gives them, not the merits of who receives them.” — Carlos Ruiz Zafón
I’ve been struggling lately with the “random acts of kindness” so many people have been posting on Facebook. The concept is surely a great one, in a “paying it forward” sort of way. You do something thoughtful or kind for a complete stranger, maybe something as small as putting a couple of quarters into a meter you notice has expired or buying a cup of coffee for the guy behind you at the drive-through.
Random acts of kindness can have a positive impact because they make a person feel good to do something kind for another person. I think the reason I’ve been struggling with the concept is it seems people have a much easier time doing something generous and kind for someone they don’t know, when doing the same for someone they love and care about can seem to be so difficult. I’ve come to the conclusion it has something to do with reciprocity, the idea that a kindness should be paid back in kind. Or, more to the point, when I do something good for you — such as provide you food, clothing and shelter — you do something good for me, such as washing the dishes, feeding the dog and getting good grades. Random acts of kindness don’t necessarily have this reciprocity expectation; the whole idea is to do something for someone without expecting anything in return.
This can take on a more significant meaning during the holiday season. You’re out shopping and you put an extra dollar in the tip jar at the coffee shop, stop to help someone struggling with her bags or open a door for an elderly gentleman. You walk away from the encounter feeling a little more in the holiday spirit. Then you go home, walk in the door and see your son sitting on the couch playing video games, empty snack bags strewn across the coffee table. You walk into the kitchen and the dishes you had asked him to put in the dishwasher are still sitting in the sink. There goes your holiday spirit, down the drain with the water you’re using to rinse the dishes. You think, “He can’t even do one thing I ask him to do. He doesn’t deserve the new video game I’ve bought him for Christmas!” You walk back into the living room and tell him if he doesn’t turn his behavior around, there won’t be a Christmas!
I know where this response comes from: pure frustration. You have asked a hundred times (feels like a thousand!) and the behavior still hasn’t changed. In that moment, you just want to make some impact, some statement to show your child you mean business. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work and, in the long run, the only thing it tends to be effective at is increasing the resentment between the two of you.
When it comes to “consequencing” your child, some things should be considered untouchable, things like holidays, birthdays, milestones and special events. Using this type of “one shot consequence” isn’t effective, for many reasons. When you use things such as Christmas or Hanukkah as a consequence, you’re not giving your child a chance to make a better choice. And, once the holiday or special event is over, you have nothing to motivate your child towards better behavior. Taking away the holiday doesn’t teach your child anything except maybe how to be bitter and resentful.
For a consequence to be effective, it needs to be meaningful. Christmas and Hanukkah are meaningful, but in a different sort of way. Instead, use things your child enjoys doing to motivate him to better behavior. If your son really enjoys video games, have him earn his video game time by completing his chores. If the computer is what he enjoys, have him earn computer time by talking to you respectfully for 24 hours. This kind of task-oriented, short term consequence gives him the opportunity to practice the behavior you want him to have while earning a privilege he wants.
Something to keep in mind: There will only be one Christmas of 2012. Your child will never have the opportunity to celebrate that Christmas again. Neither will you.