Let’s say you went to work today thinking that it would just be a normal, average work day when you unexpectedly are called into a meeting in an unfamiliar office. Your boss is there, and her boss, too. In fact, there are a ton of people at the meeting, some of whom you recognize as people in management, but many of whom are unfamiliar to you. You’re called to the front of the room and, turning to face the audience, you see that, in the back of the room, television cameras are trained on your face, following your every move.
The president of the company is seated nearby, and your boss says, “We’ve decided you can have that promotion…but only if you sit in the CEO’s lap.” You start to protest, explaining that you don’t know this person, that sitting in his lap in front of all of these people is frightening and humiliating. Your boss only gets angry; “we won’t call this meeting to a close until you do it, so you might as well get it over with.” Feeling your throat constrict in your chest and tears fill your eyes, you begrudgingly sit down, noticing that, as you do, the CEO puts on his most winning smile for the camera. Satisfied, your boss says, “now that’s one for the company website! You really earned that promotion!”
Does this sound like a job that you’d work hard to keep? No? You don’t like the idea of being bribed into close physical contact with a stranger by people who have power over you? Not interested in having that experience caught on camera?
Would you trust your boss afterwards? Would you think of your CEO as a kindly, generous, and loving person for having been a part of that particular experience?
Good. Then you’ll understand why I’ll ask you to leave my family off of the distribution list for your Christmas card that happens to feature your little one, tearfully wailing, in Santa’s lap. Maybe send us next year’s pic with the whole family in matching Christmas PJs, but the picture of your kid in abject, terrified misery, in the arms of a stranger, and you, off camera, doing nothing about their fear? I’m just not into it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-Santa. I’m not even anti-Santa-photos. But I’m not okay with grownups forcing children to do uncomfortable things with their bodies for the sake of tradition. I’m not okay with parents demonstrating to their youngest kids that, even if it feels wrong, if a grownup says you should touch them, you should touch them. I’m not okay with parents inadvertently teaching that their children that they cannot trust their parents to keep them safe. I’m not okay with kids learning, even in this small way, that they don’t get to control their own bodies in the presence of others. And it seems downright cruel to then show off their bewildered faces to the world, “Ha ha, look how terrified she was! Poor Santa!”
Let’s flip the script. If you want to do a Santa photo, fine. Approach slowly. Describe what is going to happen. “We’re going to meet Santa Claus! If you’d like, we can even take your picture with him!” Let your child watch what older, more experienced, calm children do. Offer alternatives: “Some kids like to sit in Santa’s lap for the picture, but you don’t have to. We can go up together if you’d like, and shake hands, or do a high-five. Or, if you’d prefer, we can just go wave hello without touching him. Whatever feels right to you!”
Don’t be impatient with your kid if it doesn’t turn out the way you’d like. You have other family photos. You have pictures where your children look happy. And this gentle approach to Santa, while it might not produce the most spectacular Christmas cards, might do a better job of creating treasured family memories.
And it might even help to preserve, for just a moment longer, the innocent magic of Santa Claus.