He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice, He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, Santa Claus is coming to town.

And so you tell your kids something similar, unknowingly, teaching them an unintended lesson. The internalized lesson, the subliminal messaging, that they’re receiving is that they are good or they are bad for their behavior; and that if they’re naughty, they’re less deserving of yours (or Santa’s) love (in this case gifts).

Now, you might be asking, “Well, isn’t that how you correct or direct favorable or desired behavior?”

The answer is “not exactly.”

When parents define desirable behavior and manipulate children’s experiences to assure specific outcomes, such approaches may not encourage mature autonomy or help them build healthy decision-making skills.

From a consent educator and abuse prevention specialist perspective, this creates two issues that can directly impact the child’s safety, short term and long term.

Those issues are that children become greater targets for grooming (the process abusers use to gain the trust and affection of a child with the purpose of sexual abuse); and second, they become more susceptible to bribes and threats to keep a secret.

That’s why replacing this phrasing with more conscious language can make a world of difference for your child’s safety.

Telling your child that the gifts (yours or Santa’s demonstrations of love) that they receive are based on their good behavior and obedience (read: conditional). That can create emotional neediness and set them up for grooming by child sex offenders, especially if they are family.

According to the national organization, Darkness To Light, perpetrators may target and exploit a child’s perceived vulnerabilities, including emotional neediness, isolation, neglect, a chaotic home life, or lack of parental oversight, etc.

That’s why replacing this phrasing with more conscious language can make a world of difference for your child’s safety.

When we reward good behavior with gifts and affection/attention and punish “bad” behavior, we’re teaching kids that they are less lovable and less worthy of our time/attention/affection when they are bad.

The younger the child, the more they’ll internalize this as a literal message of conditional love. Developmentally, they’ll believe that if you’re mad at them for something they did wrong or bad, that you don’t love them because of it.⠀

There are more positive ways to help children develop healthy and positive behavior, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about here.

Now, let’s pause a minute before we continue. You may be thinking or feeling shame for having used the terms naughty and nice or the concept of gift-giving based on behavior. Please know that you were doing what generations before you have done! (The song was created back in the 1930s!)

Parenting styles and philosophies have changed a great deal since then. So don’t beat yourself up for what you may have done or said in the past. The good news is that there is still time to change and adjust your language. But first, let’s learn why this change matters regarding your child’s long term safety.

The how, why and what you can do about changing your language

Kids believe, consciously and unconsciously, that they are good when they do good or that they are bad when they do bad things. It becomes part of how they see themselves and their self-worth, and this can feel like their truth unless you are consistently reminding them of your unconditional love as they age and develop.

A 3-year-old will internalize this as a literal fact. “I do bad things, I am a bad boy.” They’ll reason that “when I am bad, mom gets angry with me, less love is received, I’m not as lovable.” And, the thing they want most is your approval and love.

A child can become more susceptible to threats and bribes from an abuser based on the value system you set up in your home.

The two ways offenders use this to their advantage

Offenders (be it family members, family friends, or strangers) look for the gap in a child/parent relationship and try to exploit it. If they see a parent use the good- kid/bad-kid model in their home, they know that if they provide “unconditional love” to that child, they’ll be able to gain the trust and affection of that child quickly.

The offender also knows that the child will do whatever it takes to hold on to their parent’s conditional love; and that the child will not want to risk it by doing something bad. In an abusive situation, they will try to position a child into a “bad” situation and tell the child to keep their secret or risk being seen as “bad” and being rejected by their parent.

Offenders take advantage of a child’s naive perception to get them to guard “their” secret because they always look for ways to convince the child that they were partially responsible for the abuse.

An abuser might try to convince the child by saying something like, “You can’t tell anyone about what we did today, or they’ll think you’re bad and won’t love you anymore.” And if the child is young, impressionable and, unintentionally-set-up-for-grooming, the chance that the child will opt for silence is significantly increased.

Many adult survivors of child sexual abuse have said that they didn’t tell others because they were afraid of being seen as bad and partially at fault, and they feared that that would make them unlovable to their parents.

The more secrets a child keeps, the more internalized shame they feel about how “bad” they are.

A child that is secure in a parent’s unconditional love (demonstrated through your actions, not just your words) is less vulnerable to grooming and threats/bribes for secrecy. They have nothing to lose—their parents have affirmed it.⠀A child that is secure in your unconditional love is safer. So let’s talk about holiday traditions.

New holiday language to try instead

The good news is that with some simple changes, you can easily create new phrasing. As it relates to Christmas and Santa’s list, parents can opt to change the language and ideas around gift-giving. Instead of reminding kids to “be good” so Santa brings them what they want or the big gift they’ve been asking for, use these ideas instead.

Tell them that Santa is bringing them what they’re asking for because they are inherently good. And explain what inherently good means. “Inherently good means that you were born good, and no matter how you behave, even when you DO things that are not always the best choices, you are still a good person, and our love for you will never change, except to grow stronger!”

That’s the language I’ve used for my kids.

If you hear the Santa Claus Is Coming To Town song playing on the radio or someone’s Christmas playlist, you can counter it by saying, “Santa will still bring gifts! Santa doesn’t care if you’re naughty or nice. That song is so old, and people used to think that way long ago. But we don’t think that way, and neither does Santa!”

And, you can still sing the song if you’d like, but be sure you’re breaking it down for your kids (during Christmas and throughout the year).

Let’s replace the use of “naughty/nice” or “good/bad” with more conscious language and action now and all through the year. Remind your child regularly that your love is unconditional and what that means. It will empower your child in multiple ways and keep them safer.

A version of this story was published December 21, 2020. It has been updated.