For all of you tearing out your hair over not being able to take pictures of your child on some stranger's lap at the mall, hear me out.
My 3-year-old has always been terrified of Santa. Forget about sitting on the guy's lap for long enough to snap a photo; he has convulsed with sheer terror at the mere sight of Jolly St. Nick ever since he was a baby.
When I took him on "The Polar Express" ride last year, he loved the train and the kids and, of course, the cookies. When Santa, ringing his bell and laughing his belly laugh, came down the aisle of the train, though, my kid lost it. He cried and shook and turned beet red.
For any parent who has tried to explain to a screaming 2-year-old why you can't jump from a moving train in the dark of night and ice and snow on the ground below to escape Santa, fun isn't the first word that comes to mind.
I never tried to get my kid to take a picture with Santa. It would be like asking him to pose in a pit of hissing fanged snakes (he might think the snake pit was more fun).
I get that for many, that annual tradition of the kid sitting on (and often enough, crying) on Santa's lap reeks of nostalgia. What better Christmas card image than of the baby bawling his eyes out juxtaposed with a smiling, serene Santa? It's the type of memory we've told ourselves we will always cherish and be able to chuckle about and embarrass them all over again recalling when the kid grows up and brings his fiancé home 22 years later.
We've long made light of the trauma that kids may face when placed on Santa's lap, turning their tear-stained faces into Christmas cards and jokes, even click-bait slideshows of upset children. After all, 93% of sexual abuse perpetrators are people who are familiar to the child
. We reinforce all throughout our kid's childhoods to stay away from strangers and then we counterintuitively tell them it's OK to let this one stranger touch you.
Oliver Sindall, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents, asserts that it comes down to consent. How traumatized a child might be when forced to sit on Santa's lap against their will depends on the child's emotional security, which is largely contingent on whether the parents have secured a safe environment for their child.
Still, "being forced to do something they are frightened of can often be traumatic, or impact their understanding of consent, even if it is just sitting with Santa," said Sindall, who's based in Surrey, England.
This callous practice has continued unabated for decades -- until recently. Parents have started thinking through the notion that putting a child on a stranger's lap -- regardless of whether he matches a fabled tale of a jolly fellow who brings us presents -- may not be a good idea. That's particularly so when we otherwise teach our kids not to talk to strangers and they often erupt into tears and panic in the company of people they don't know.
Maybe those Christmas pictures of our kids screaming in fear on Santa's lap aren't funny after all. The tradition might even be traumatic.
Opportunity for change
Enter 2020, the year of social distancing.
This year of Covid-19 shutdowns has forced us to rethink the counterintuitive and potentially harmful practice of allowing strangers to touch our children for the sake of a laugh, the snap of a photo. Now, because of the public health directive to steer clear of the germ circles of those outside of your household, Santa must be 6 feet or more away from your precious little children -- who already have a healthy caution of people they don't know, even if they are supposed to be magical and bring presents.
"Having virtual or socially distanced Santa visits can be the first step in showing us that this new normal can be just as good or fun as the traditional sitting in Santa's lap," said Elizabeth L. Jeglic, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Jeglic, who studies child sexual abuse and trauma, underscores the importance of child bodily autonomy and the pitfalls of teaching them that it's OK for strangers to touch them even when it makes them uncomfortable. This year "has changed a lot of our behaviors, there is no reason why sitting in Santa's lap cannot also change -- and probably for the better," she said.
With the new socially distanced Santa, a child can sit a safe distance from the stranger dressed in red and talk about their hopes and dreams and present-filled wish lists without fear of stranger danger.
Respecting kids' personal space
A good friend recently posted an image on social media of her 5-year-old sitting approximately 6 feet apart from Santa, both masked. Her comment accompanying the image wasn't about this year's changed protocol or a downtrodden child who couldn't fulfill his Christmas wishes, but about the long list of toys her kid relayed to Santa.
In other words, we're already starting to normalize a welcome change in this strange and troublesome practice. I've seen Santa wearing a face shield, sitting across the room from baby, who is sitting contentedly on a mom's lap. This is a welcome change.
In an all-time new achievement for 2020, I even saw a friend who is a Christmas and Santa zealot post a picture at the mall of her holiday picture -- just her family, all smiling and happy and safe in one another's familiar arms. The parents may have felt that Santa was missing, but the kids likely just felt the love from their parents' warm embrace. What a novel concept!
"Respecting the child's stop and teaching them that there is no authority on earth who can mandate that they engage physically with someone they do not wish to, is an act of powerful magic that can last a lifetime," said Stefani Goerlich, a licensed social worker and author in Sterling Heights, Michigan, via email. Goerlich works with people "working to reclaim their bodily autonomy after having their 'no' ignored."
Consent is magic. Distance is safer.
For those people for whom Santa visits and photos are part of the magic of the season, this new way of allowing children the gift of 6 feet of distance is a beautiful way to stay safe and still deck the halls with boughs of jolly.