Last year my daughter requested to sit on Santa's lap for the very first time. It was a departure from the usual Saint Nick fly-bys we engage in between Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. She was 7, and she was ready.
We deliberately went to visit the big guy during a low traffic time. She doesn't like to be the center of attention, after all. Although we only waited for about 20 minutes, we saw plenty of tears from toddlers trying desperately to escape the jolly old elf. My daughter was visibly upset by what she saw. "Why do the kids have to sit on his lap?" she whispered, over and over again.
Countless children will sit on Santa's lap this holiday season, and many of them will hate every second of it. There will be tears, primal screams and attempts to run, but time and time again, these mini protesters will be placed back on his lap to capture that perfect holiday picture—the so-called "rite of passage."
It might feel like this holiday ritual is no big deal, and you might even wonder how much kids actually remember from these events. The truth is that these seemingly small moments feel significantly upsetting for the screaming toddler left in the lap of the stranger and for siblings caught in the middle. Forcing kids to sit with that kind of fear can have lasting effects.
Before you spend hours in line to create that essential holiday memory, consider these potential pitfalls:
Strangers and people in costume rank high on the list of common childhood fears for toddlers and preschoolers, and for good reason. While Santa looks cute on paper, he's big and imposing in person. It's the same reason your toddler freezes up in the face of Mickey Mouse when you finally find an opportunity to meet him. Viewing images in books or on a screen in the safety of your home is one thing, but when those same images show up in person and larger than anyone you've ever met, it can be frightening.
Some children are so upset by their visits with Santa that they experience nightmares and other forms of sleep disturbance for weeks to come. If an experience is particularly upsetting, they can even develop a fear of men with beards or glasses.
It sends mixed messages about stranger danger.
From the moment kids can talk, parents warn them about stranger danger. We tell them not to talk to strangers. We tell them not to go anywhere with a stranger. We even develop code words and backup plans in case we're late for school or daycare pickup. Then we sit them on the lap of a complete stranger and implore them to smile for the camera.
It's best to preface the visit with Santa with a quick chat about what will happen. Reassure your child that you will be right there, and Santa, although technically a stranger, is kind. If your child resists, find another tradition to focus on this year. There are plenty of other ways to make memories.
It triggers the worry cycle.
If you happen to have a little worrier on your hands (the child who doesn't separate easily, for example), this is not the time to experiment with meeting new people. Santa visits tend to be overwhelming both visually and emotionally. Long lines tend to be loud as squirmy kids lose their patience. His house is usually large and overwhelming. It's a lot to process, and worriers are easily overwhelmed.
Understanding each individual child's temperament plays an important role in helping kids thrive. What works for one of your children won't necessarily work for another. You might have genuinely enjoyed visits with Santa as a child, but that isn't a guarantee that your child will feel the same.
An anxious child needs extra time to prepare for potentially worrisome situations. Transitions and new experiences can be difficult. Forcing your little worrier to sit on Santa's lap will likely exacerbate the worry cycle and leave your child feeling anxious and upset.
It breaks the trust.
Children love their parents unconditionally, and they trust their parents to take care of them and help them when life feels hard. Leaving your child screaming and crying on the lap of a stranger and yelling to your child to smile or shake it off, or laughing while your child struggles, breaks the trust between child and parent.
Sure, those pictures might seem funny when they show up on late night television, but what kind of a message does it send your child? If you want to build a trusting relationship, you have to be there for your children.
It minimizes their feelings.
The single best way to raise happy kids is to teach them how to cope with their emotions. Life isn't always easy, and kids will confront a range of emotions each day. If we teach them how to recognize and cope with their feelings, we set them up to work through the hard stuff independently as they grow.
If we minimize their emotions (by telling them sitting on Santa's lap is no big deal, for example), we teach them to stuff their feelings. We leave them feeling alone in a sea of emotions. All feelings are important, and it's important for parents to put their own needs aside for a moment to help their kids through difficult moments.
It lacks empathy.
This practice—this need to get the holiday picture no matter the outcome—lacks empathy. We teach kids to think about others. We tell them to be kind and compassionate. Then we turn our backs and do the opposite.
The truth is that memories are made by spending time together as a family. Listen to your children when they feel scared. Empathize with them. Then work together to create new holiday traditions that work for everyone.
Katie Hurley, LCSW is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, Calif. She's the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin 2015). Check in with Katie on Twitter or on her blog, Practical Parenting.