It’s a landmark holiday event that many parents look forward to -- taking a photo of their child sitting on Santa’s lap while their red-faced kid screams and reaches for the safety of mom or dad waiting off camera. Every year, there are various crying-Santa-photo listicles, Tumblrs and even contests because watching scared kids wailing while in the clutches of a strange old man is just so hilarious, am I right?!
Wrong. So so wrong. That’s not to say I don’t sometimes find humor in my kids’ misery, stifling a laugh the time my 3-year-old fell into the toilet or while she watches herself cry in the mirror during a tantrum. But those pics of terrified kids with Santa that fill my Facebook news feed every year always just make me cringe.
“Do you want to sit on Santa’s lap?” my mother-in-law asked Zooey, the 3-year-old, as we waited in line recently to see the jolly old elf.
It was our first trip to see the Big Guy this close up since Z was six months old. As a baby, she was A-OK with visiting St. Nick. She was more freaked out by the photographer and Santa’s elves shouting her name and ringing bells in her direction, trying to get her to smile. But at ages one and two, she preferred to keep Mr. Claus at a safe distance. As a toddler, even walking too closely to his big red throne at the mall made her start shaking. So I was surprised when she said she wanted to go see Santa this year with her six-month-old little sister.
Zooey now seemed to be sizing up the situation, watching the kids in front of her getting their face time with Santa.
“I don’t want to sit on his lap,” she said, holding my hand and pulling on her blond pigtail. “I’m a little scared.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked her. “Do you want to stand next to him? Or maybe just wave?”
“Stand next to him,” she said a bit nervously.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
She walked forward, looking determined. She had, after all, been amped for days about her impending meet-up with Santa. The baby, meanwhile, laughed and reached for Mrs. Claus. My husband popped our youngest in the Mrs.’ arms while Zooey stood between Santa and his wife for a picture.
“You were very brave,” I told her as we walked away.
Zooey is a smiley, outgoing kid with a cautious and observational side. She introduces herself to cool, pink-haired older kids (i.e., 5-year-olds) who intimidate me. I admire her so much.
Here’s one of the things I most respect about her: If she doesn’t want to hug someone, she doesn’t, and she doesn’t feel guilty about it. Yet it seems like most people just expect physical affection from her. And some -- particularly friends and family -- can get really upset with her if she turns them down, coming at her with BS like, "I'm sad now. Don't you want to make me happy? Don't you love me? Show me you love me." These are exact quotes.
Some misguided folks even take it upon themselves to just scoop her up into a hug, kiss or tickle even if she outright tells them no. It's all I can do not to snatch my kid away and run. I do, however, step in and say a little too loudly, “She doesn’t feel like a hug right now.”
I remember my own mom forcing me to awkwardly give kisses and hugs to the creepy, scratchy-faced husband of my elderly babysitter, or the ladies at church who smelled like mothballs. I felt so embarrassed, angry and ashamed that I seemingly had no control over my own body. And once when I was seven, my dad asked me to sit on Santa’s lap at the bank for a picture. I just felt so badly for both men and wanted them both to love me so much that I did it, but I put all my weight on my feet so that I was just sort of hovering millimeters away from St. Nick’s red velvet pants. He gave me two candy canes.
To the people who think that forcing/coercing children to dole out physical affection when they don’t want to doesn’t have an impact, I’ll tell you this: It did with me. My parents made me hug and kiss grown-ups and other children as a child. Then as I got older, I thought that giving guys what they wanted physically would make them like me.
I realize there are a lot of blanks in between filled with a litany of contributing factors, but getting reinforcements like that early on certainly didn’t help.
It sends the message to kids that you’re not the boss of your own body, that you can get people to love you by allowing them to touch you, and that you should go along with someone else’s physical advances on you even if every fiber of your being is telling you it feels wrong.
And it sends the message to adults that these messages we’re sending to children don’t matter.
Now that I’m the mother, sometimes it feels like it would be so much easier for me to just tell my kid to hug great-grandma goodbye because she might die before we see her again, or to give our neighbor a peck on the cheek because he asked for one. But uncomfortable or not, I defend my kid's decisions about who she does or doesn't want to hug or kiss -- even if that person is me or my husband -- sometimes to the detriment of my relationships with people and what they think of my child (grown-ass people actually have the nerve to tell the three-year-old she's “not sweet" or that she is "obviously very shy" if she says no to a hug). If we’re going to teach children about body safety, then I think we need to include body empowerment.
I just want my kids and all the people they interact with to understand that no really does mean no, yes really does mean yes, and no amount of guilt tripping or bribing with candy canes and Christmas presents can change that.