We explore the reasons why we should never force our kids to sit on Santa's lap. For that matter, we should never force kids (or anyone!) to do anything at all. This kind of behavior sets children up for abuse later in life.
We’re not telling you to stop your willing child from sitting on Santa’s lap. We’re telling you to stop forcing your UNWILLING child to sit on Santa’s lap.
Actually, don’t force your kids to do anything. At all. (More on that at a different time).
Their bodies are not anyone else’s but theirs
Ursula Wagner from FamilyWork says that forcing physical contact like hugs or sitting on Santa’s lap “sends a message that there are certain situation when it’s not up to them what they do with their bodies.” This can have a negative effect on children later when they grow up to become teenagers then adults.
“Forcing children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend’s feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them,” adds Irene Vanderzand, founder of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International.
“This can lead to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so ‘he’ll like me’ and kids enduring bullying because everyone is ‘having fun’,” she added.
CNN Digital Writer Katia Hetter wrote about the subject in I don’t own my child’s body. In it, Hetter taught her daughter a vital lesson in one sentence: “I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won’t make you do it.”
She effectively teaches her daughter “that it’s OK to say no [emphasis mine] to an adult who lays a hand on her, even a seemingly friendly hand.”
She explains “her body is actually hers, not mine. It doesn’t belong to her parents, preschool teacher, dance teacher, or soccer coach. While she must treat people with respect, she doesn’t have to offer physical affection to please them. And the earlier she learns ownership of herself and responsibility for her body, the better for her.”
It’s about consent
“Children should never be forced to do anything which makes them uncomfortable around these issues,” Peter Saunders says, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. “Children are instinctive and intuitive around people they are not comfortable with. And we need to respect that.”
“There are certain things we make children do which is quite different,” Saunders says. “We make them brush their teeth, for example. That is quite different to forcing them to kiss an uncle they don’t want to. It’s about boundaries. And this blurring of boundaries [by forcing them to kiss someone they don’t want to] can indeed blur their understanding of what is right and wrong, about their body belonging to them.”
The Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, said that it’s never too early to talk about consent with girls.
“The notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children,” she said.
“But the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime,” she added, “and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older.”
“Plus, sadly, we know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help,” she said.
Not to be rude, but…
But this doesn’t mean that giving your children permission to refuse hugs or sitting on santa’s lap (or anybody’s lap, for that matter, because it’s their right) does not mean giving them permission to be rude.
“She has to be polite when greeting people,” Hetter says. “Whether she knows them or not. When family and friends greet us, I give her the option of ‘a hug or a high-five.’ Since she’s been watching adults greet each other with a handshake, she sometimes offers that option.”
Hetter explains to her family members “why we’re letting her decide who she touches.” She then observed that letting her daughter initiate physical contact makes for genuine human connection instead of a forced one. “When my child cuddled up to my mother on the sofa recently, happily talking to her about stories and socks and toes and other things, my mother’s face lit up. She knew it was real.”
Columnist Annalisa Barbieri writes on The Guardian, “It’s not about being overly politically correct or trying to stop normal family life.”
“Sometimes children don’t want to kiss a relative or family friend, for all sorts of reasons, and yet adults want them to because otherwise it doesn’t look nice … You cannot expect a child to acquiesce when you want them to, and then magically grow up to ‘know their own mind.’ Knowing their own mind starts with allowing them to speak it.”
When some traditions need to be reined in
It’s fairly easy to get caught up in the moment of social mores. Cultural and religious traiditions are like that. They tend to sweep people up in one set of shared habits that are difficult to break.
There are social repercussion to breaking such protocol, especially in cultures where physical contact between children and elders is considered vital to keeping the peace. Breaking it would be an insult to the party denied such gestures.
But such an environment only gives rise to generations of adults who are convinced that children do not have full control of their bodies. Such widespread thinking only reinforces a culture of physical abuse.
If this has been around for generations and the number of victims of physical abuse has never dropped, why continue this at all? If such practices are meant to instill values of respect between generations, why does physical abuse flourish under its watch?
We think it’s funny
What makes forcing kids to sit on Santa’s lap worse (among other things) is we think it’s funny.
“It’s just for fun,” you or your relatives might say. The kid sits on a random Santa’s lap, he or she cries, and we snap a photo. We put it up on social media and we think, oh, that’s cute and funny at the same time.
It just perpetuates that kind of behavior and leniency towards our children. Children aren’t our property. They are not your props for your yearly social media posts. Forcing them as such is just irresponsible.
We’re teaching them contradictory lessons
Children should never be forced to make us and everyone else happy at their expense.
Forcing kids to do whatever it is you want and not what they want is confusing these kids because we tell them contradictory lessons: Never talk to strangers. Never let them touch. But Santa Claus, an old stranger, he’s okay. Go sit on this sabta’s lap. We don’t know where he’s been, or what he’s done, or what he’s really like. He’s okay. We have faith in this stranger.
It’s odd that we trust this stranger more than we trust what our kids are telling us. And we wonder why they’re terrified. Then when they make a tantrum, some parents hit them. What chance do these kids have? How is this their fault when they trust us implicitly to protect them?
If a child wants to sit on Santa’s lap, by all means, let them. But if they don’t want to, don’t force them to.
Honour their wishes. They deserve that because they’re people too.