You Better Watch Out

A few days ago, a mother told me she was feeling terribly guilty because she curbed her child’s misbehavior by telling him that “Santa is watching.”  While the ruse was effective, she thought it might be inappropriate to control her little one by making him fear the wrath of an unseen, mythical character.  My advice to her?  Don’t worry about it.  In fact, relish the opportunity you have at this time of year to let someone other than yourself be the omniscient ogre.

It is nice to believe that you will be able to induce your child to be pleasant and responsible by appealing to his sense of reason and fairness.  But the fact is that during the first years of life, children have yet to develop a sense of either reason or fairness.  Given the limitations on their cognitive abilities, they are invariably irrational and egocentric.  I could go on and on about the theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, and other psychologists who have studied the development of moral reasoning extensively, but the bottom line is that the only thing that will keep little ones in line is fear of authority figures.  For them, morality can be stated very simply: rules are rules, and if you break the rules you will get into trouble.

I remember as a kid playing ball with my friends on the streets of New York.  When a car would come along, my buddies and I would run to the curb and stand there until the vehicle passed.  And I can tell you the exact thought I had when doing so: if I get run over by a truck, my mother will kill me.  I did not understand and appreciate things like force, momentum, and the fragility of the human body, but I fully comprehended my mother’s warnings about what would happen if I returned home with torn and bloodied clothes.

It may be one of the more unpleasant aspects of parenting to be put in the position of ever-present and ever-vigilant warden, but it is necessary to occupy that position until your child develops the mental capacity to figure out “the right thing to do” for himself.  In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break for a few weeks and turning over the job to Jolly Saint Nick.