The holidays are approaching.  The mall just had their tree-lighting ceremony last weekend.  I already see Christmas decorations and Christmas merchandise in department stores way before Halloween.  Every year, Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier.

One of my family’s Christmas traditions is to take a walk down Christmas Tree Lane.  Three years ago, we went on opening night.  Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and the elves were there.  I asked Little Mermaid, who was 2 at the time, if she wanted to take a picture and talk with Santa.  We excitedly got in line when she said yes.  When we got to Santa, my child would not sit on Santa’s lap.  She hugged my legs as she peered at this strange man in front of her.  Before I knew it, one of the elves tried to help my daughter on to Santa’s lap, but she cried and I pulled my child away.

“It seems she is scared of Santa,” I said to the elf.  I turned to Little Mermaid whose face was stained with tears and asked, “Koj ntshai Santa lod (Are you scared of Santa)?”

She nodded.

“Okay, ces peb mus xwb mas (Then we can leave),” I said.

But she didn’t want to leave until we got a picture with Santa.  So we stood next to Santa Claus and took our picture.

It’s interesting that we teach our children about the dangers of strangers, but tell them it’s okay to sit on a strange bearded man’s lap for pictures.  But that’s okay because Santa is a nice person. So is the pedophile who lost his puppy or the relative who pays too much attention to a child.

Every year, as I shop at the mall during the holidays, I would pass by the Santa station.  Sometimes I stop to watch.  I have seen children jump excitedly on Santa’s lap and tell him their long list of Christmas wishes.  I have also seen children cry because they don’t want to sit on a stranger’s lap.  I see their parents pushing them and telling them that they have to or that it’s okay.  Some even threaten, “If you don’t, Santa’s not bringing you anything for Christmas this year.”

I furrow my brows and shake my head.  This situation (or any similar) always makes me feel uncomfortable.

My family and I were at the mall yesterday.  Santa was there.  My children wanted to stop by and say hi.  Little Mermaid was happy. Mini Mermaid did not want to go near Santa.  The visit lasted about 2 minutes.  It was an awkward moment.  Although Little Mermaid was sitting next to Santa, she didn’t talk with him.  He gave her two candy canes and a paper reindeer hat.  When her younger sister saw that, she hesitantly walked up to Santa and he gave the same goodies.  And that was it—the visit.  I asked my children if they wanted to talk with Santa, tell him their Christmas wishes.  Little Mermaid looked at me and shook her head.  The younger one just stood by my side.  So I said, “It’s okay.  You don’t have to talk with Santa if you don’t want to.  Let’s go.”  And we did.

Santa was our last stop at the mall, so when we got to the car, I reminded my children about the dangers of strangers, even if they are Santa.  “If someone offers you candy in exchange to touch your body, what do you say?” I asked in Hmong.

“No,” my older one replied.

“Yes, even if he is Santa Claus.”

Children should get a say on their physical boundaries, whether it is with Santa, a relative, or even you—the parent.  If your children do not want to hug, don’t force them.  If they don’t want to kiss, don’t force them.  By dictating that they should, you are undermining their feelings of comfort.  This tells them that they are not the owner of their bodies and should discard their instincts, which makes them vulnerable to being sexually abused.

Irene van der Zande is the co-founder and executive director of Kidpower, a nonprofit empowering and educating people of all ages to stay safe.

I have had to tell friends and relatives many times that my children do not want to be hugged.  Fortunately for me, no one has gotten offended by it (or if they have, they have not said anything to me).  Some reply, “Maybe in 5-10 minutes when they have settled.”  And in 5-10 minutes when my children have familiarized themselves with the people and surrounding, they usually run up to hug their auntie or uncle who was asking for a hug earlier.

I don’t have a say in who they want or do not want to be affectionate with.  When my children tell me they dislike someone, we have a conversation about it.  I remind them that they cannot be mean to that person, but they don’t have to like them.  Just because I am their parent does not mean I have to make them like someone they do not.  How would you feel if someone told you you have to like someone just because they are another person’s friend or relative?

Some have said that I am too liberal and giving my very young children too much freedom—which may lead to them being out of control, vulnerable to abuse, and promiscuous.  I beg to differ.  My spouse and I have rules in the house and are consistent in reinforcing and punishing our children.  I just believe that my children get to express their emotions and make decisions on their physical boundaries.  Why am I going to force my children to do something that they feel is wrong and/or uncomfortable?  Like Irene van der Zande stated above, by making children “submit to unwanted affection…, we teach them that their bodies do not belong to them….  This leads to children getting sexually abused.”

4 thoughts on “On Santa’s Lap

  1. They are good rules MB for your children. Frankly I’m so amazed that some children just hug some strangers so easily.

    I did grow up raised by parents who were very restrained in showing affection to their children. So we never wanted for cretain to hug or be lifted by a stranger.


    1. I cleary remember times of babysitting my youngest siblings who definitely did not wanted to be lifted by neighbours. So I carried them or allow baby sibling to come back to me. The whole thing about not allowing strangers to touch us, was drilled into our heads by my parents.


      1. I grew up with little affection from both parents too. It was very unnatural for me to hug, kiss, or even say thank you or I love you to my parents. And they always taught us to never let anyone touch us; it was ingrained in our heads.


  2. I love your article. This is such important information that needs to get out there more. I’ve always encouraged my children to have autonomy over their bodies and that it’s not right when adults expect children to just take what they’re given, which includes affection and criticism. My oldest is 15 and often stands up for himself with teachers or other adults who he feel mistreated or misunderstood by. He does it in a way that the adult usually just becomes silent because in asserting his boundaries his points are so crystal clear, yet he’s always respectful in how he expressed himself. I’m very glad I empowered my children and still do to make their boundaries clear to adults who are crossing the line in whatever way that feels uncomfortable to them.

    Children being told to always be nice and polite to adults denies children of a voice and a right to stand up for themselves.

    Thank you again.



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