by Pete Mazzaccaro

Santa Claus might be one of the best figures ever invented to keep children under control.

Unlike the myriad fairy tales that have warned generations of children with dire consequences for not behaving well, Santa Claus is a kinder gentler stick for parents to use. If you land on the naughty list, it’s coal for you, kid. Coal.

How many parents have turned to their children and said something like: “What you’re doing right there? That’s probably going to cost you a present. You know Santa’s watching, right?” Or, “You better stop that right now, or Santa’s going to skip this house.”

I know I have. And I’m sure I’ve probably said worse. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

I suspect the kids are smart enough to see through most of my empty threats, but I can tell that they harbor just enough doubt that it makes them think twice. They don’t really believe they’ll get stiffed by Santa, but the risk doesn’t really seem worth it. Better to behave well now with the chance of more reward in the future.

Parenting is generally so hard that you’ll turn to any tool available to get your children to cooperate with you. Even the threat that a mythical North Pole-dwelling saint will seek revenge against children for bad behavior. It’s not the Grimm Brothers, but it’s pretty grim.

I can’t help but think that it’s a shame the same tool isn’t available to us for adults, many of whom seem just fine behaving badly without fear that their stockings will be stuffed with coal on the morning of the 25th.

Think about it.

I’m not talking about big things like crime and truly awful behavior here. I’m talking about the simple things adults choose to do that they know are poor choices.

As much as the holidays are about reconnection, they also increase the risk of poor choices. We get into fights over parking spaces near a local store. We conspire to punish relatives or friends who slighted us the last time we invited them to the annual holiday party. Steve? No way he’s getting a card this year.

As adults, we’re too smart (I think) to be tricked into fearing minor consequences for minor acts of unkindness. We’ve got it figured out, right? We know better, for the most part. But can’t help ourselves.

There’s no one around to threaten us with coal. Or that we’ll be skipped altogether. Somehow, we have to figure out how to stay off of the naughty list all on our own.