Why We Should All Ask for Coal in Our Stockings

Do you feel like others are constantly putting coal in your stocking—always judging you to be unworthy? Are you doing it to yourself? Perhaps it’s time we decided to stop letting people stuff us full of coal…

Gold and Coal

Photo Credit: Ben Raynal (Creative Commons)

Do you remember the song?

“He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…”

And do you remember the threat? Do you remember what you get in your stocking if you’ve been naughty?

That’s right. Coal.

This time of year, I regularly sneak out to the garage and rub charcoal all over my hands and face, just to keep the kids guessing about how they’re doing.

Just kidding.

Kind of.

Because I wonder if sometimes the coal isn’t on my hands, but issuing from my tongue. How often am I communicating with my words, “You aren’t good enough”? How often am I putting my words of coal into the stockings of their little hearts?

THE BEST WAY TO BE CONTROLLED

If you want a child to obey, punishments can be a pretty effective tool—taking away video games for a few days, or restricting time with friends, or a timeout here and there. And research shows that rewarding good behavior is even more effective—dessert for choking down the broccoli or money for good grades.

But if you really want a kid to toe the line—if you really want to control their behavior—there’s nothing like the nuclear option: shame. Imply they will only be good enough if they obey, humiliate them in front strangers and peers, convince them their worthiness is contingent upon saying this or doing that.

We live in a world that relies on shame to shape behavior. Because it works.

Last month, my third-grade son was reduced to tears on a Sunday evening, as he contemplated returning to school the next day. I was startled, because he usually loves school. Through his tears, I gradually extracted the story. The previous week, he had been talking out of turn in the cafeteria and received his consequence: he was forced to sit alone at the “grounded” table throughout the rest of the lunch period…and through the entire lunch period of older kids that followed.

The scarlet letter of elementary school.

He was deeply ashamed and terrified of talking out of turn again.

Shame shapes our behavior, but what kind of mangled shape does it make of our hearts?

Growing up in a world that uses shame as its trump card, how many messages of insufficiency and unworthiness have we taken in? If our hearts were stockings, how often has someone put coal there by sending us the clear message: your value depends on your obedience, your compliance with what I want you to say or think or feel. And having absorbed these messages, how often do we unintentionally shape our children into our own mangled image?

THE BEST WAY TO BE FREE

As my son choked on his shame, I tried my entire bag of tricks to soothe him and prepare him for the next day’s school. But nothing worked. Until I said this:

“Aidan, if you are sent to the grounded table again, I want you to look at the teacher and say, ‘With all due respect, you can’t do that to my heart, please send me to the principal’s office instead.’” His sobs instantly ceased and he looked up and now he was the one startled.

“Really, I can say that?”

I assured him he needed to accept the consequences of his behavior, but he was in charge of what people put in his heart. I told him his heart-stocking was closed for coal.

And he believed me. And he fell fast asleep. And the next day? He actually did talk out of turn again. And he took his consequence silently and went to the “grounded” table without a word. But, as he told me later, he was at peace with it. Because his heart was closed for coal.   

HEARTS CLOSED FOR COAL

Perhaps we should all ask for some coal in our stocking this year. Maybe we all need to be a little defiant. Maybe we all need to stand up and say, “You can put coal in my stocking, but you can’t put it in my heart.”

As Americans flock in droves to shopping malls and department stores today, we have to be sure we are not trying to purchase our way to a sense of value and worthiness. And we have to be clear with our children that the gifts we buy are not a reward. The gifts we place under the tree are, rather, an expression of our gratitude, a way to say to our children:

“You are a gift to me, exactly as you are—temper tantrums and middle of the night projective vomiting and angry defiance and all—the whole glorious mess of you. And I am thankful for you. Simply because you are you and there is only one of you and that makes you absolutely worthy of love. And you have a place to belong here with us.”

I think if we could all hold on to those words this holiday season, our hearts might be closed for coal.

Forever.

QUESTIONS: How do you send the message to your kids that they are valuable and loved, regardless of how they behave? Share your experience in the comments section.

DEAR READER, I hope your Thanksgiving was ripe with gratitude and that your holiday season begins with the deepest sense of worthiness. My eBook is on the way, a gift to you, a way to say, “You are worthy and you belong here at UnTangled.” Thanks for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Carrie

    After seven years of therapy, I have come to love myself. I want to take care of myself the way I want my grandchildren taken care of. I was the one dumping most of the coal in my stocking, but now that I love myself, I find that the unintentional hurtful words of others do not penetrate my heart. It’s a cool place to be!

    • drkellyflanagan

      That is VERY cool, Carrie!

  • Jennifer Newell

    I find I know when I am letting my heart be effected by the negative things I say to myself. I try to stop it and when I dont seem to be able to turn that ship around I reach out to a counselor. Sometimes saying the stuff in your head out loud causes you to challenge those thoughts. Having a counselor to help you see it is a bunch of garbage is a blessing in itself.
    I never thought of this in this particular way. Guarding your heart is an amazing way to see this. My kids I try to help them when they start down this dark path. Because to me they will all always be the most amazing people. I fought long and hard to have 2 of them and the third was a extra special blessing because he was a gift with out infertilitiy treatments. I am over protective and I am a little controling wanting them to be safe and protected all the time. But my number one goal in life is to be the best mother they can have.
    As my son struggles with graduating from college, I try to reassure him that not having a job a graduation is not a sign of failure. Besides back in the day, I did not have a job when I graduated. For a child who has worked so hard and will graduate in 4 years with 3 majors, maybe he just needs a mental break. And yes I said come home and hangout by the pool and in the fall look for a job again. If a person is so driven to get a triple major, they will not all of sudden stop working hard. But sometimes we all just need a safe place for a mental health break.
    My daughter is struggling to determine what to even major in while in college. Graduating from high school and all her friends have such big goals and big ideas. She feels she is lacking. I tell her to take her time. I still dont know what I want to be when I grow up. Besides I rarely hear a kid going to college and not changing there major when they get there. I know I changed mine 3 times.
    I guess I spend more of my time trying to get all three of them to know, I will always love them, I might not be happy with the choices they make but I will always love them. And last I tell them, there is nothing they could ever do that would stop me from loving them. I might be disappointed, mad or frustrated but I will always love them inspite of their behavior.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, Jennifer. And, “Having a counselor to help you see it is a bunch of garbage” is one of my favorite lines in a long time. Some therapist out there needs to adopt it as their tagline. 🙂

  • Kim

    This reminded me of something that happened on my oldest son’s third birthday.

    My mom and I had taken him to a local mall with a merry-go-round, a train, and a lot of stimulation and activity for a just-turned-three-year-old. We bought a pizza to bring home, as as we drove home, past his nap time, he had a tantrum about something. He was sad, and angry, and tired, and he cried and yelled and pushed the pizza box onto the floor. I pulled over to pick up the pizza and he reached for me and said through his tears, “I need a hug”. As I started to reach for him my mom said “Are you going to give him a hug? I wouldn’t hug someone who was acting like that.”. Her words brought back so much of the shame I was raised with, and I realized how important it was to me to not raise my children with that same shame. I stood up to my mom for one of the first times ever and told her “I love him no matter how he acts” and I climbed in the back seat with him and hugged him and he calmed down and eventually fell asleep.

    Twelve years later, I still think of that moment, when it became so crystal-clear to me how damaging Shame could be and how important it was (and is) to me that my children not be raised that way. To me, it’s one of the most important parts of raising my children: making sure they know they are loved, always, no matter what. Not because of how they act but because they deserve love, all the time.

    • drkellyflanagan

      When I read here how you responded to your mom, it gave me the same feeling as when I read your most recent post!

  • Catharine Phillips

    I love this. And love the idea that we can teach our children to guard their hearts. Still, I have learned (and am learning) so much from my children (ages 25 and 16). When my son, now 25, was in first grade, his teacher’s aide took me aside one day and said: ” I have to tell you this. You should be so proud of your son. While I do not agree with the teacher*s approach… you should be so proud of your son” When my son got frustrated with the way things were going at that age, he would often cry. The teacher had asked him to stand up in front of the class, and asked him to promise not to cry. My son, age 6, said: “Mrs. D. No one can promise not to cry. I’ll do my best… but no one can promise not to cry.” Proud? You bet your boots!

    • drkellyflanagan

      “No one can promise not to cry.” Yes! Who was the student that day? 🙂

  • kelley

    your article is so timely, my 8yr old son has been exceedingly defiant and at bedtime when i told him i love him and know he is a good boy, he told me tonight if he were santa he would give him coal…i told him santa, like mommy and daddy, love him always, bad or good…he said well i am giving myself coal tonight….guess he has already developed his own internal barometer of acceptable behavior which is one big step in the right direction…appreciate your insights and inspirational writings

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kelley, The Tuesday Tip is going to suggest another practical way to approach this idea of coal in the stocking. Maybe your son would enjoy it!

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  • MofE

    Too much to say. I was definitely raised with shame-based parenting. My dad even threatened to spank me when he was trying to teach me to ride a bike, just because he didn’t know any other way to get me to get it right. (Also, he’s, like, Olympic-level narcissistic.)

    I’ve been fortunate to find ways to heal, like a Twelve Step program and an exceptionally sane counselor/priest, but it’s slow, and it’s taken a miracle to open my heart to ideas like being loved no matter what. I kind of wonder if I can ever completely heal without telling my dad that he was wrong. I’ve always thought I could never do that, because I could never tell him in a way that makes any sense to him, because he kind of thinks emotions are invalid. So posts like these are really helpful, because they give a vocabulary for rejecting shame that I hadn’t really thought about before. I don’t have to tell him in a way that makes sense to him; saying something that sounds all “sensitive” is almost an act of defiance in a good way.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, yes. Absolutely. The ultimate act of defiance against shame is choosing to be yourself, to express yourself in your own way, without needing the other person to get it. Thank you for this.

  • No Stockings

    It’s good to read all the positive comments from people. I never had coal put into my stocking, I never had anything put into my stocking, I never had a stocking even. It is hard to live a life where I was never given any love, hopes, dreams, consideration. I feel as a child I was just there. I fight hard not to put coal into my own stocking and pray to God that I did the best I could not to put it into my children’s stockings. It’s great to read about people doing such wonderful things with their families. 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for sharing this. Blessings to you and your family this season!