Pushing children to sit on Santa’s lap, especially when they cry and make it clear they do not want to do it is an assault on their bodily autonomy and agency. Of course a lot of kids cry when they are pulled away from mom or dad’s arms and put on this stranger’s lap, who’s wearing a big red suit and looks like a scary clown!
Why would we push our children to do that?
Given rates of child sexual abuse and the many ways children learn that they don’t get to have agency over their bodies, we must realize that this does not help, and in fact, may contribute to children thinking they do not get to say “no” to unwanted touch.
It’s another way we say, “Yeah big grown men can touch you when you don’t want it and you have to cooperate, or there might be consequences…you might not get your presents…better be quiet now and be a good boy or girl.”
Maybe you have rooted your family in the myth of Santa and your kids are all in. Okay, so ASK THEM “Do you want to go sit on Santa’s lap?” If they say “no,” let it go. If you don’t and you push them to do it anyway, then it becomes about you and what you want–a cute photo to send everyone or to feel like you’ve done your parental duty around the myth of Santa.
If they DO want to, then ask if there is anything they need around the experience, and make sure they know they can change their mind, or stand next to him if they prefer. If you model these tenants of bodily autonomy and consent early and frequently for your children, they will learn that they have control over who touches them and under what circumstances. Make it a practice to make sure your children know they never have to hug or touch someone they don’t want to.
No more of the “Go on now, and hug your Auntie.” Ask if they want to. I never just touch or hug a child. I greet them verbally and ask if they want a hug or a high five or neither. And I honor what they want. Even if I feel close to that child, I am not going to assume I have access to their body, as much as I might love a hug. If they have their arms stretched out to greet me, they are in the lead.
By teaching children that they get to have control over their own bodies, we are providing them with the agency they deserve over their life and what happens to them. And that means Santa too. Maybe especially Santa.
And if someone ever tries to abuse them, they will be far more equipped to push back, state their boundaries, say “stop” or to speak up about it later. They deserve and need this skill set. Model it for them.
I know it can feel like a bubble burst for some folks who care about these Christmas traditions and love to play the game of Santa. Sometimes traditions need to be updated. In an era where we are doing as much as ever to end childhood sexual abuse and we know the statistics are high for it to happen, we owe it to ourselves to question this one.
And if you child is truly traumatized by being forced to sit on Santa’s lap, know that it could indicate they are being retraumatized–it would be a good idea to investigate whether something has already happened and they are being reactivated by this experience. Note of caution: That is not necessarily the case and they might not want to for a whole variety of reasons. And it’s important to pay attention to those cues.
I hope your December is starting brilliantly. I want to thank everyone who attended the Sex and Money Masterclass last week.