My three-year-old son really enjoyed Christmas.

My son is still talking about how Santa came to our house to fill our stockings two times (my wife put treats in one night, and I put some in two days later), and loves to tell everyone about all the presents he got.

We haven't really pushed the whole "Santa only gives presents to good girls and boys" thing (I'm not a fan of using threats of withholding rewards as a motivation). However, he's watched a lot of Christmas movies, and definitely knows the theme.

Unfortunately, this has led to him telling his mother or I that we're "on Santa's Naughty List, and aren't going to get any presents", usually when we're enforcing common rules that he has broken (e.g. "don't leave the dinner table until everyone has eaten").

I'm mostly concerned with explaining that enforcing the rules isn't "naughty", but I'm not certain that, at three, he's developmentally ready to really understand this. Is he? What is the best way to respond to this?

  • 1
    What does he say when you ask him why are his parents on the naughty list? I fail to understand why it's you not him - he's the one who broke the rules!
    – Dariusz
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 9:35
  • 1
    @Dariusz Three-year-old logic... if we say something that makes him unhappy (i.e. tell him he can't do something), we must be bad.
    – user420
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 13:22
  • I hope you don't mind: I just broadened this question (I think... though maybe that's not the part you were interested in?) and posted it in that form. I'm really interested in this, so I hope you'll keep us up to date on how your "naughty parent" situation turns out. Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 18:35
  • He probably doesn't fully grasp the cause and effect relationship of your punishments, only that you are being mean to him. His assuming you are on the naughty list is logical. A stocking full of coal next Christmas might inspire a bit of humility in him
    – gillonba
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 20:22

4 Answers 4


I got pushback for corrections at a little older than 3, typically something like "isn't it rude to point out when someone is doing something wrong?" and in fact, it is. If you're at a work event and a random coworker uses the wrong fork or puts their elbows on the table, you are not allowed (by the rules of politeness) to tell them so and certainly not to issue them some sort of command to change their behavior.

I acknowledged the overall rule and then pointed out that parents have an exemption from it, especially at home where no-one else would hear. I sometimes also reminded them that while it hurts a little to be reminded that you've done something wrong, it would be much worse to get all the way to being a grownup without knowing that was wrong, and it's part of my job to teach them these things.

For a three-year old it's a little tougher, but I might say something like

Naughty is when you do something wrong on purpose because you don't care. Nobody gets on the naughty list for making a mistake, like [forgetting to X or whatever he just did], or for helping their child remember the rules. Right?


I think the fact that he's talking about it means he's ready for it. I would try saying what you just wrote, that "Enforcing the rules is never naughty" (in the firm tone of "If you push over the cup, the milk will spill"), and see if you can get away with that.


This is a delicate one. Many rules that were followed could be seen as immoral (i.e. Hitler, Milgram Experiment, Strip Search Call Scam). The "Strip Search Call Scam" really bothered me as a teenager was one of the victims and when asked why they allowed it to happen they responded (paraphrased by me), "I was always taught to listen to adults."

I don't think we should raise obedient children but children who follow their instincts and are encouraged to fight for what they believe in. I think we get caught up with preparing a child for school and telling them to "always listen to the teacher" but I think there are other ways of handling that like, "Pay attention to the lesson. I can't wait to hear what you learned today."

We teach our daughter (will be 3 in April) that "Santa" is the spirit of giving and anybody can be Santa. So we tell her that Mommy Santa got her this gift and Nana Santa got her that gift. When she gave gifts to her cousins, she was being Santa. I also showed her the Christmas cards we got showing different Santa's and that it is just a costume.

I would personally diffuse the image of this one person judging little kids first and in a different setting, not when he is calling you naughty. If he continues to call you naughty, I would say in response something along the lines of,

  • Dinner is when we get together to catch up with everybody and have a little quieter time together without distractions (said this recently when my daughter threw a tantrum when dinner interrupted her watching a show)
  • We don't throw our Legos because that's how we lose the pieces and we won't have them to play with anymore
  • We put our things away so we know where to find them tomorrow

I read that it is not worth reasoning with children under 7 because their emotions are not stable but I disagree. I even reversed a rule on my daughter yesterday which was, "when the paper is white you can use a marker" to avoid bleeding on the next page. I started to feel that this might be inhibiting her creativity so I said, "you can use a marker if you are okay with it bleeding." Sometimes she uses the marker and sometimes she doesn't. I like giving a reason because it points out cause and effect. Consistency is key so it will take some persistence for a child to adjust to the new rules.


My suggestion is basic reasoning:

"I'm on Santa's naughty list? I asked you to pick up your toys and you're the one that wouldn't do it, not me.

Now stop the noise and pick up your toys."

This kinda thing worked for me. Absolute must: firm restatement of the original enforcement. It basically says "your attempt at deflection won't work here" and that regardless of what he thinks or says he's going to have to do what you said anyway.

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