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…
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.
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.