Naughty Or Nice List? Humbug

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's that time of year again. Children are reminded that Santa has a list that divides them all up into two categories: 'naughty' or 'nice'. That's it: pretty black and white. You're either naughty or you are nice but you can't be both. This month all across America, department store Santas are starting their (kind of creepy) lap sitting sessions with, 'Have you been a good little kiddy this year?'

Nice kids get the presents they deserve and naughty kids get a lump of coal. At least there was a time when coal was useful to heat house but let's face it; it will never be as good as a shiny new sled. So, to borrow the words of another seasonal character, "Humbug" on this whole 'naughty/nice' paradigm.

Children learn the good/bad world enough. We're told that certain behaviors are good, certain ones are bad; things are 'yuck' or 'yummy'; 'mean' or 'nice'; and then popular culture reinforces it. How many of us grew up thinking cowboys/good, Indians/bad? Black hat is a villain; white hat is a 'good guy'? That last one, by the way, gets incorporated into race issues too, as in 'black/bad', 'white/good' and, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book 'Blink', even a large percentage of African Americans have been indoctrinated to see 'black' as intrinsically bad.

Maybe if we could admit that there's more of a 'gray' world than black/white we'd be able to feel better about ourselves.

When kids get a little older they begin to see that maybe there is a bit more to the equation. They see movies with a little more subtlety, those that might look at those old stereotypes from the other side or that 'walk a mile in their moccasins'. Do you remember the first time you saw a movie where the Native American wasn't a 'savage soulless beast' as in 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian?' For that brief moment you have a shot at being able to understand that there are two sides to every situation, that it's not always polarity. Whether we profit from that brief moment is still up for grabs.

Women have an added layer of this indoctrination. As marriage age approaches many of those 'good little kiddies' hear from their mother, friends or sister the old "Men want a saint in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom". We're still on the 'naughty and nice' theme here, too, as sex is the ultimate 'naughty' behavior, isn't it? Women who have 'urges' that go past holding hands with a man they are dating want to do the 'nasty'. Or they are 'naughty or bad girls' as in 'Girls Gone Bad'; as if 'bad' is a trip you can't return from.

Maybe if we could keep the whole benevolent old man who gives presents model and get rid of the 'naughty or nice' list, we could grow up a little healthier. Maybe if we could admit that there's more of a 'gray' world than black/white we'd be able to feel better about ourselves. Maybe if we didn't think that we were either all one thing or the other we'd be able to give ourselves a bit of a break!

Let's face it, we're all imperfect and that imperfection as the way we were designed turns out to be perfect, doesn't it? Growing up with a two sided list convinces us, at least those of my generation as far as I can see, that if we weren't completely good, we were bad. Bad at heart, bad to the bone, bad, bad, bad . . . Kind of lights up your holiday smile, doesn't it?

It's only after a lot of years and a lot of time that I've personally been able to get over thinking that I was, intrinsically, utterly, and born-to-be, 'bad'. My wife, who is, by the way, whatever she wants to be as an authentic, guilt-free human being in the kitchen or in the bedroom has no guilt about it either way. She has always wondered at the origins of my not so sub-conscious core belief that, since I've done 'bad' things in my life, I must, deep in my 'being', be bad. She must have been trained wrong (thank goodness).

So for all of us who were eager to be 'good little kiddies', to be deserving of toys under the tree, to hope that Santa didn't see us when we were mean, selfish or lazy I say "Let's buy OURSELVES a shiny new sled; we deserve it". This isn't a call for us all to cheat, lie or steal, let's just rely on the training we got, the higher standards set by our community and our personal sense of right or wrong and realize that we are all, after all, just humans and we're all, every one of us, doing the best we can, day after day and that in itself is pretty good, isn't it?

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And by the way, one holiday idea that is 'good': 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards men'.