Over the holidays, children across the world will visit Santa Claus and open up to him about their deepest wishes.
Writer Estelle Erasmus never allowed her daughter to sit on Santa's lap because it communicates to children that it's OK to confide in strangers, and to have physical contact with them, even if they feel uneasy about it.
Many parents today start teaching their children about body boundaries, tricky people, and consent from a young age, as soon as they're able to begin to understand these concepts. Yet every December, all that heartfelt advice often goes out the window.
We invite Santa Claus, a complete stranger, to surreptitiously enter our homes through the chimney in the middle of the night, instead of announcing himself at the front door like any other guest. Then we reward him for it with offerings of milk and cookies. We also encourage, if not force, our children to sit on the laps of Santa Clauses at malls and events to get that traditional holiday photo. We even urge our kids to open up to Santa about their wishes.
On any other occasion, an adult sitting closely and whispering with a child they don't know could be classified as grooming. That's when a molester uses charm and gifts to connect with a child and gain their trust.
When we push children to sit on Santa Claus' lap, we're encouraging them to let their guard down around safety
By directly contradicting our own advice, we are sending confusing messages to our children. We're saying that sometimes it's OK for a strange man to sneak into our homes, as long as he's there to deliver gifts. Children may walk away from the experience thinking that they're obliged to have physical contact with new people, even if they feel uneasy about it.
They might think it's not dangerous to talk to someone they don't know, if he wants to hear about the new train set or doll they're so eager to get.
I never felt comfortable pushing my daughter to offer affection to friends or relatives. I certainly never felt comfortable forcing my daughter to climb onto a stranger's lap. But when my daughter was younger, I offered her the chance to feel like the other kids and have a private moment with St. Nick. It wasn't until she repeatedly declined that I realized the inherent problems with this popular Christmas custom.
When my daughter said she didn't want to sit on Santa's lap, I realized how problematic this holiday custom is
My daughter, who is now 10, still has no interest in visiting Santa. She's now old enough to tell me why. For her, there is the question of his authenticity. But there is also the creepiness factor.
"I always knew that the mall Santa was not real," my daughter told me recently. "Santa wouldn't show himself to the public."
My daughter also said she was wary of those secret conversations Santa had with the children.
In most cases, Santa is probably just talking to a child about their wish list, and how they earned the items on it. But how do we know the adult isn't asking inappropriate questions? How do we know Santa isn't saying, "I'll give you $20 bucks if you..."
She had a point. Where is the certificate showing that this actor has been checked out?
Instead of having direct contact with Santa Claus, my daughter suggested kids reach out to him the old-fashioned way, by writing a letter. Or, by using a North Pole communicator toy.
My daughter stopped believing in Santa a few years ago. It was around the same time she lost faith in the tooth fairy, when she caught my husband putting a few bucks under her pillow. That was fine with me. I appreciate fantasy and make believe, and the crucial roles they play in a child's development. But I also believe that even beloved characters should be appreciated at a safe distance.
Lately, I've been thrilled to see that there has been some progress with these public Santa visits, since my daughter was younger. I have heard that in some cases, the phrase "sitting on Santa's lap" has been replaced with a more appropriate one: "Sitting on Santa's knee." Some kids are now standing — or sitting — next to Santa on a bench or a chair.
Now, that's a holiday picture I'm happy to see.
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