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Some experts say Santa’s ‘naughty or nice’ list can be harmful to children

“Misguided at best and manipulative at worst.”
Santa and Mrs. Claus. 1952
Some mental health experts are questioning Santa's "naughty or nice" list.Alamy
/ Source: TODAY

Parents, please be advised that the following story contains frank, adult discussion about Santa. (Whatever the experts say, we're not taking any chances with the naughty list.)

Should parents trash Santa's "naughty or nice" list?

Some mental health experts say characterizing children as "good" or "bad" on a list can limit personal growth, inflict shame and doesn't reinforce desired behavior.

"Threatening children with a 'Naughty or Nice' list is misguided at best and manipulative at worst," Chazz Lewis, a parent and teacher coach in North Carolina, wrote on Instagram. "You can still do all your fun traditions without lying to your child to manipulate them."

Mental health experts checked the “naughty or nice” list in a 2019 video campaign titled “A Mental Health Message From Santa Claus" by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

"I think I did this all wrong," an introspective Santa said in the PSA. "It started with good intentions, a way to motivate behavior, to codify gift-giving, to streamline deliveries, but 'naughty or nice' — as if some kids don't have enough to worry about, only to have me judge them without context, without perspective, without any sort of doctorate in psychology ... 'naughty or nice.' Did I condemn every kid who already felt like a misfit toy?"

One YouTube viewer said the PSA was the “Best Christmas message of the season," commenting, "People are complex creatures and the human mind isn’t as black-and-white as ‘naughty or nice."

"Let’s continue to spread the word that not all kids struggling are bad, they just need help and guidance!" another wrote.

Others were not persuaded.

"I shop-lifted when I was 10," one commented. "I was NOT suffering from emotional issues, I was being naughty and needed discipline."

"Kids can be brats and this does NOT mean they are suffering from an emotional/mental issue," the commenter continued. "This is dangerous in my opinion. We need discipline as children and using the excuse that all are fragile is ridiculous. We will create even weaker children, weaker teens, weaker adults who can’t face the challenges of everyday life."

Dr. Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer of NAMI, tells TODAY.com, "How we talk to our kids is important and holidays are no exception." He adds: "Some children will internalize a black-and-white interpretation of their behavior, taking it to heart."

Duckworth says the "naughty or nice" list tells children their behavior is forever.

"Life is a continuous learning exercise," he says. "Hopefully there is nuance in how we talk to kids about making mistakes."

Duckworth acknowledges that usage of the "naughty or nice" list is not entirely, well, naughty. Even though he takes matters of mental health very seriously, he says, sometimes it's not always that serious.

“I think in a family where a child is treated with love and kindness and respect, ‘naughty or nice’ can be non-harmful and I think you can interpret this too much.”

Lewis tells TODAY.com that wielding the "naughty or nice" list can be a last-resort tactic for frustrated parents.

"We want to steer kids toward kind behavior but we don't always have the tools," he says. "So we repeat what we learned as kids and sometimes those lessons are based in fear or manipulation."

Instead of using the threat of Santa's list, says Lewis, "You could say to a child, 'I see you're having a hard time sharing that toy or waiting patiently."

"We want kids to become aware of their actions and learn what they could do differently," Lewis adds. "Otherwise, we call them 'bad' in the hopes that they solve their problems, instead of teaching how to do it."

Categorizing a child as "nice" doesn't really work either, says Lewis.

"Categories like 'smart' or 'perfect' put children, who are naturally complex, into a box," he says. "Kids might believe they have to work hard to meet those expectations or misbehave in the hopes that adults see them for who they really are."

Instead, says Lewis, highlight children's positive behavior.

"Say, 'You let your friend have the toy — that was so helpful,'" says Lewis. "That way the behavior has a label — not the child."