Sitting in Santa’s Lap – Yes or No?

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Santa with smiling child.
photo credit: -drz- on upsplash

In the past, I’ve been accused of being anti-Christmas, which I can assure you is not true. As you read this post, hopefully you’ll see that it’s not about religion or tradition, but rather a commentary on consent – and how to raise children into teens and then adults, who have learned that they really do get to choose with whom they show affection.

Sitting on Santa’s lap dates back to the late 1800’s, but is it consistent with teaching children about body safety and consent? Find out how you can celebrate the holidays while seizing teachable moments – from greeting Grandma to visiting Santa.

Children are safer from child sexual assault and form healthier partnerships down the road when they have a choice about with whom they show affection. This goes for Grammie-Sue, Grandpa Joe, Uncle Dave, Cousin Trish, big kid, little kid, Mom, Dad – and even, Santa.

Be sure to read all the way to the bottom for a real Santa story from a Parenting Safe Children mom, but let’s start with Grandma.

Greeting Grandma
The holidays are a time of greetings and affection, so it’s particularly important to remember that children and teens are safer when they get to choose when and with whom to show affection. 

If a family member or friend wants to greet your child with a hug or kiss, and your child does not want to, then seize this teachable moment and stand up for your child by modeling healthy boundaries and communicating clearly.

Grandma: “Oh, little Jackson, it’s so good to see you. Come here and give me a hug.” 

Parent: “I know you’re a hugger, Mom, but we’ve taught Jackson that he gets to choose when he shows affection and it looks like he doesn’t want to hug right now. Jackson, is there another way you’d like to greet Grandma besides hugging her?”

I know how natural it is for parents and grandparents to want to shower their children and grandchildren with hugs and kisses, but giving children a choice about physical affection teaches that consent matters. And good news—children can still learn manners about how to greet and take leave, but hugging and kissing aren’t the only options: A high five, handshake, fist bump, or a simple “hello” or “goodbye” also shows manners. Bottom line: Safety first, manners last.

Here’s a recent example of putting consent into action:

Father: “Alyssa, give your auntie a hug good-bye.

Auntie: “You know what? You’re the boss of your body, Alyssa, and it’s totally okay if you don’t want to hug. How would you like to say good-bye today?

Alyssa: “Good-bye.” (And then Alyssa ran over and gave her auntie a hug because when you give children a choice, half the time they go for the hug anyway!)

Now What About Santa?
It’s coming up on Christmas and you may want to take your child to the mall to visit Santa so little Brandon can tell Santa that he’s been extra good and really truly deserves an Xbox. Some of the kids are crying, some are excited to sit on Santa’s lap, and some try to put on a brave face because they are scared to say “no” to their parents and to the bearded holder of gifts from the North Pole. Maybe you even offer a little encouragement, “Go tell Santa what you want. Get into his lap so we can take a photo for our Christmas card.”

On first blush, this is a sweet tradition, right? But what message are we giving children when we ask them or even encourage them to climb into Santa’s lap (a person they don’t even know) – or allow Santa to touch a child in any way – without permission?

Here is an example of how to visit Santa and teach consent:

Parent: “Sweetie, do you want to visit Santa this year?”

Child: “Yes, I want to see Santa and ask him to bring me the doll house.”

Parent: “Some kids like to sit on Santa’s lap and some kids just like to talk with Santa. How would you like to greet Santa this year?”

Child: “I don’t want to sit on Santa’s lap.”

Parent: “You’re the boss of your body and I’m glad you’re telling me what you prefer. You always get to choose with whom and when you show affection. How would you like to greet Santa?”

Child: “Maybe I can give him a high-five.”

Parent: “Sounds like a good plan to me. What will you do if he asks you to sit on his lap?”

Child: “I will say, “No.”

At one point or another, you may have seen a child crying in Santa’s lap and parents laughing. Watching a child cry in Santa’s lap is not funny. It’s breaking a body-safety rule and robbing children of their right to consent.

“If You Don’t Sit in My Lap…”
Here’s what a Parenting Safe Children mom shared about Santa visits and teachable moments about boundaries and bribery:

“The week before Christmas, Santa visits the clubhouse and the kids really look forward to it. On this particular year, my daughter was 7 and my sons were 4, and 2. We waited in the long line to see Santa, and the anticipation and excitement were building.

Prior to our turn my daughter told me that she wanted to talk to Santa but not sit on his lap, and I told her that was completely fine. She walked up to Santa with her two brothers right next to her. Santa told her to sit down on his lap and she said, “No, I just want to stand.” Then Santa said, “If you don’t sit on my lap, I will not give you any presents.

All our mouths dropped open. My daughter said with tears in her eyes, “No, I do not want to sit on your lap.” My son, who was four, told Santa he couldn’t talk to his sister like that. We left the clubhouse, shocked over what had just transpired.

I am so thankful for Feather and the information I learned in her Parenting Safe Children workshop to be able to prepare my children for a moment like this – a moment you think will never happen, but did. Our holiday time looks different now and I don’t think we will ever go back to visit a Santa, something my now 3 younger children will never get to experience. Instead, we utilize Elf on the Shelf® to send messages to Santa.

We talked about how what Santa said was a bribe and was wrong and how standing up for yourself is the most important thing no matter what the other person says. It brought us even closer as a family and the magic of the holiday is still alive in our home. Each year we are always reminded of this memory and we talk about it in a positive way, in celebrating my daughter’s confidence in herself and the example she set for her brothers – and the support given by her brother.”

In closing, we can’t teach children they are the boss of their own body and then force them to sit in Santa’s lap or hug a relative. This contradiction confuses children and makes them more vulnerable to sexual assault. In fact, I’ve had numerous conversations with child sexual assault offenders who concur that these types of contradictions actually make it easier for them to sexually abuse children.

Thank you for all you do to keep children safe from sexual assault. This holiday season: Teach consent.

Feather Berkower, MSW, is Founder of Parenting Safe Children and a Child Sexual Assault Prevention Educator & Author

14 Comments
  1. Thank you for bringing attention this moment in a child’s life that can be uncomfortable and feels forced upon them. I stopped taking my kids after they were two years old. Something inside me said “why am I putting my child on a stranger’s lap?” I would never do this in any situation in life. But I’d been conditioned since childhood to do this and thought it was what had to be done for my own kids. Until I “woke up” and realized that Santa is a stranger and it made no sense to let him handle my child in any way.

  2. We’re really lucky where I live, our Santa is AMAZING and so respectful – he asks if everything is ok and offers to let parents sit in his chair and then he peeks out from behind it for photos if the little one(s) are concerned about him and the photos turn out SO cute when everyone feels safe and happy

  3. Thank you, Feather! This is such a timely reminder. I really appreciate the specific examples of how to address these issues with family and with Santa. Thank you for everything you do!

  4. Merry Christmas Feather!
    I am always learning news ways to keep the kiddo’s in my life safe! Also, a refresher in body-safety rules.
    Thank You for your gift of educating us on keeping children safe from abuse.
    Your dedication is truly a gift to our families and community!
    Kim

  5. Feather, thank you for this article. After reading it, I spent the last week meditating on how we should handle Santa this year. My husband and I decided to take my 3 and 2 year old to Santa, but we sat the kids next to Santa, instead of on his lap. Santa started to ask why they weren’t on his lap, but I simply said that they would be sitting where I placed them. Amazingly, the pictures turned out perfect (both kids were actually smiling!). We feel proud that they got to experience this tradition in a non-threatening way. Thank you for educating us!!

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