Naughty, nice and all in between

I was making dinner a few nights ago when I heard my boys having a serious conversation - or as serious as serious gets for a 4- and 6-year-old.

"Hey E," said C, the older one. "Do you think you're on Santa's nice list or naughty list this year?"

They were in the middle of destroying the living room for the fourth time since school let out. Race cars and Magna-Tiles littered the floor, a couch cushion fort lay half-toppled next to the Christmas tree and a Pisa-esque tower of library books served as a centerpiece to the chaos but E, the younger one, overlooked it all and answered matter-of-factly.

"Well, I only punched you one time today but you sat on my head AND took my Bowser," he recounted, narrowing his eyes. "So I'm on the nice list and YOU'RE on the naughty list, C!" Needless to say, his punch count did not stay at only one and King Koopa almost ended up in the toilet.

Silberboy metrics notwithstanding, getting a child to actively consider how nice or naughty they are is slightly easier in the month of December. Whether they're jumping on furniture, playing with food or recruiting for Fight Club Junior, a gentle "Santa's watching, kiddos!" or not-so-gentle "SO HELP ME GOD, Christmas is about to be canceled!" (for the 67th time that week) is usually enough to get even the most cookies-, candy cane- and hot chocolate-fueled progeny to think for a minute. But what about the other 11 months of the year when we can't crutch on Mr. Claus for backup? Yes, I know the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are usually solid muscle to contact in the offseason; I'm just trying to limit to whom I owe favors.

Over the past six years, I have compiled a laundry list (and laundry in general, because kids) of what works and what doesn't when it comes to child wrangling, with the Ls far outnumbering the Ws. What's effective one day goes up in flames the next, the tactic that tanked last week is a miracle worker this time around. Parenting is pretty much a Choose Your Own Adventure where even the safest sounding path can lead to disaster. At least nothing's on fire. Yet.

If you've read this far hoping for a January-through-November solution, SPOILER: I don't have one. (If you do, feel free to email me!) Until I find one, though, I'm employing Santa's listening ears, empathetic heart and warm chuckles while I bide my time until next December when the Big Man himself flies in to help me out again.

- Lex Silberberg of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].