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Keep that Elf on the Shelf

December 24, 2014

elfonshelfBy Sarah Vander Schaaff

A few years ago, I interviewed the British Philosopher Alain de Botton for my Lunch Box Mom blog and asked him if it was ethical for me to use Santa and his “nice list” as a way to motivate my children to behave.  My kids, as many of yours, are no longer firm believers in Santa, but a variation of the question pops up in other aspects of parenting. Maybe it’s the Dean’s List, and not Santa’s list, and maybe the rewards are privileges instead of presents, but the fundamental idea of using an outside arbiter and the promise of something good in exchange for particular behavior is the same.

Here is a reposting of the philosopher’s view on the time honored evocation of Santa in the quest for peace at home:

Was this all in the spirit of Christmas, or just a way to bribe and threaten my kids, I asked. The British philosopher and author, Alain de Botton, a  father himself wrote back to say:

My feeling is that using Santa is utterly fine and ethical.

The reason is that any parent has such a hard time disciplining children that the self-discipline that comes from Santa is actually of the mildest, gentlest sort and preferable to the more hard-headed alternatives (naughty step etc.).

Also, children are not capable of ethical choice right now, so the claims of Santa are not an alternative to ethical thinking; they are a pre-ethical way of maintaining order and a modicum of calm.

I don’t think that kids do take away from the Santa= present equation the idea that being good gets a material reward (as many psychologists argue). They take away the broader underlying point, which is that being good leads to good things.

Author and Philosopher
Alain de Botton

The trick in the teens is then to suggest that good things encompasses far more than material advantages. But that’s definitely for a later stage.

If you can believe it, I have even had to resort to the idea of a friendly sleep ghost in order to lure my four year old not to get up at 3am every morning.

With very good wishes,


And with that, this educated mom is signing off for the week but will back in the New Year.

The photo of the dog comes from photopin and credit is due: click here.

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