Why You Shouldn’t Force Your Child To Sit On Santa’s Lap

You picked out the perfect Christmas outfit. Your kids are all (somewhat) coordinated, you found a decent parking spot at the mall, and now, after waiting for a while, it’s your turn next to see Santa Claus. When it’s time for your kids to go up to Santa, though, one of them has a mega meltdown and refuses to sit on Santa’s lap, thereby ruining the moment — and your potential Christmas card photo. Here’s the thing: you shouldn’t force your child to sit on Santa’s lap. Like, ever.

I should know. The picture above is of me and my sister. It is, in fact, the one and only photo in existence that I ever sat on Santa’s lap. (In case you’re wondering, I’m the one on the left, looking mighty miserable.) I have always been afraid of people in costumes, and Santa Claus was no exception. I would guess that my Mom probably bribed me with a Sea Wees doll to do it. And I highly doubt that she sent this photo out to her friends and family, either.

While it might seem innocent enough, forcing your child to sit on Santa’s lap isn’t necessarily the right message to send to your kid. “We want children to learn how to recognize warning signs in their body, that ‘gut feeling’ they may have, and to pay attention to it,” says Rikki Goldenberg, a licensed mental health counselor in Boca Raton, FL.” We want them to learn to respect their bodies and to not let others touch them in any way that they are not comfortable with. This even includes something as simple as hugging and holding hands.” Or more to the point, sitting on Santa’s lap when they don’t want to. Here’s why you might want to reconsider plunking your kid in Santa’s lap for this year’s Christmas photo.

It Teaches Them That Their Instincts Are Wrong

Let’s face it: meeting a large person in a red suit and a big white beard whose face you can’t see can be very scary for a kid (heck, even an adult). “Children who are afraid of Santa are often experiencing separation anxiety which is a developmentally typical experience at several different ages,” says Lisa Howe, MSW, a certified peaceful parenting coach. “Being forced from your safe person’s arms into a stranger in a costume’s arm sounds scary.” And it makes them believe that their feelings are wrong, because their parents are telling them that it’s okay — when it isn’t.

It Teaches Them That Their Body Is Not Their Own 

It is never too early to begin teaching our children about consent and body autonomy. If your child is feeling nervous, anxious or uncomfortable to sit on Santa’s lap, it doesn’t mean that they’re being difficult, but rather they’re having a very natural reaction to a stressful situation. “These are all important feelings and ones that should not be ignored,” says Goldenberg. “By forcing the child to sit on Santa’s lap anyway, we are sending a message to the child to ignore what they are feeling and to do what the adult is telling them to do anyway.” Ultimately, you’re subconsciously telling your child that they are not in control of their body — but that the adult is.

It Makes It About The Parents And Not The Child

Sure, you’d like that picture-perfect image of your child sitting happily on Santa’s lap and smiling for the camera, but at what cost? “When our children make it clear they don’t want to be with Santa and we force it, it’s now about us and not about them,” says Howe. Although it is really easy to worry about what other people might be thinking (i.e. “Why is her kid crying in the picture with Santa Claus?”) it’s best to refocus your energy and look at things from your child’s perspective instead and respect her feelings.

It Shows Them That Making Someone Else Happy Is More Important

It’s completely contradictory. You warn your child time and time again about stranger danger and not letting anyone touch her inappropriately. Then, you tell your kid to go sit in the lap of a total stranger and be happy about it. “What we are teaching the child is that making someone else happy or comfortable or holding up tradition is more important than their safety, comfort or personal space,” says Tiffany Toombs, a mental development and mindset expert. Which is why you shouldn’t force your child to sit on Santa’s lap — or anyone else’s, for that matter.

That’s not to say that you still shouldn’t go visit Santa or take a picture with the jolly fellow. But instead of forcing a hug or making your kid sit on his lap, offer your child other options instead. “Touching is not required to greet anyone,” says Dr. Lanae St.John, sexologist and author of Read Me: A Parental Primer for “The Talk.” “You can offer any other type of greeting that you and your child come up with – a fist bump, handshake, or high five. Whatever works to help your child know that they have choice and a caring adult standing next to them and giving support.”

You should definitely speak with your child ahead of time about visiting Santa Claus, especially if he’s older, advises Kim Cook, certified health education specialist and author of Teen World Confidential: Five Minute Topics to Open Conversation about Sex and Relationships. “Find out if this is something they’d actually like to do,” she says. “And then plan ahead how they can interact with Jolly Old St. Nick.” It might be something as simple as having a quick conversation, or just standing next to him for the photo — or even a Christmas tree. “There are no holiday rules,” says Cook. “Make up your own tradition that feels right to your child and your family’s values.”

Sure, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. So make it even better by teaching your child about consent, kindness, and body autonomy. That’s one of the best gifts you can give your child—even better than anything that Santa Claus can bring.

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