Two-year-old Harlyn had been waiting in line for more than an hour, grinning as she explored Santa’s sleigh and jumped around in artificial snow in the Christmas exhibit at Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax County.
But when her turn finally came to visit Santa on his big purple armchair, the tired-out toddler was not having it. As her mother readjusted the girl’s pigtails and pink bows for the photo session, Harlyn burst into tears.
“Wanna see the puppy?” one of the photographers asked while bobbing a stuffed dog up and down in front of her. “I’m just trying to make sure we get a good smile!”
Harlyn’s mother, Ivory Testerman, weighed what she should do. If her daughter was crying and resisting a photo on Santa’s lap, should she make her go through with it?
A photo with Santa is still a childhood rite of passage for many Americans, a cultural tradition as synonymous with Christmas as eggnog and gift exchanges. Every year, photos of scared infants and toddlers wailing on Santa’s lap make the rounds on social media and in family text-message chains.
Many parents don’t see a problem with participating in what they view as an innocent tradition. But some have begun questioning the way the culture approaches photos with Santa amid the #MeToo movement and a national conversation over how to teach young children about consent and physical boundaries.
If parents force their children to sit on Santa’s lap for a photo, some have asked, what kind of message does that send them later on in life? The discussion echoes advice given by the Girl Scouts last year, reminding parents that their daughters don’t “owe” relatives hugs during the holiday season.
Some say it’s a matter of simply listening to children and not forcing them to follow through with photos if they are scared or uneasy. Others have opted out of taking their children to meet Santa in the first place.
“Putting a child with a stranger and laughing as they cry just seems to be sending an opposite message than you send them any other day of the week or any other time of year,” said Sarah Flowers, a 33-year-old Arlington mother of a 1-year-old son. “It’s like a suspension of reason just for this one experience, which is really for you.”
Candice Kilpatrick Brathwaite, a 38-year-old mother of two boys from Brooklyn, said she recently saw a friend post a photo on Facebook of a child crying on Santa’s lap and “thought about it in a different light” than in previous years.
She thought about how she wants to raise her daughter to be “confident in herself and not have to squelch her feelings and her gut reaction,” Kilpatrick Brathwaite said. “The fear might not be rational, especially for a small child, but you need to teach them that it’s okay to be afraid of something, and they can do what feels good to them.”
Angela Chang, a Pittsburgh mother of two daughters, said she is not necessarily concerned about her children’s safety while taking photos with Santa. However, she argues, the entire premise of the tradition is problematic because it places a child in a potentially uncomfortable situation with the expectation that they will get a reward for putting up with it — in this case, Christmas presents.
“I don’t ever want my kids to feel like they have to do something to get something,” she said.
When Chang wrote a blog post last year about why her child wouldn’t be sitting on Santa’s lap for photos, she received an outpouring of angry responses from parents.
“According to some of those people, I’m ruining Christmas,” Chang wrote.
For many parents, merely putting Santa in the same sentence as #MeToo is an absurd overreaction and an attempt to politicize an innocent, beloved holiday ritual.
“Please, do not attack Santa Claus,” one poster wrote when a reporter posed a question about consent and Santa photos in an online forum for the District.
Bringing up issues of consent during a classic Christmas tradition is “opening up a sphere that doesn’t need to be opened,” Dan Strickland said as he pushed his 1-year-old son Braxton in a stroller at the Santa exhibit at Fair Oaks Mall beside his wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 4.
“Why are they trying to change everything?” he said. “It’s one of the only times during the 365-day year when kids can really just be kids.”
His wife, Nina Strickland, said it’s important for parents to instill traditions like this one, and she sees no problem with encouraging her children to sit on Santa’s lap.
“You just want them to believe in that magic,” she said.
Developmental psychologists like Christia Spears Brown, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, say lessons about consent and unwanted touching should start early, and parents could use the holiday tradition as an opportunity to teach children that they are in control of their bodies.
“We want them to be able to say that when they’re 14 and 15 and 16,” Spears Brown said. “Why would we not respect that earlier just because it’s part of this cultural tradition?”
Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, said most young children who cry in front of characters like Santa Claus do so out of fear and unfamiliarity. They might start out eager to meet Santa but shift quickly to feeling intimidated in the moment. Howard encourages parents to “alleviate that distress” by removing them from the photo session or standing with them.
It’s a brief moment that probably will not have a lasting impact on most children, Howard said. “But for some kids, it just contributes to a learning history of overriding your own preferences or your own desires to make others happy, so you stop registering what you want.”
So what do the Santas think?
Tom Valent, a Santa Claus who serves as the dean of students at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, known as the “Harvard” of Santa schools, said he teaches his students to never force any child to sit on their laps and to leave it up to the family.
“We tell the Santas that you have to be extremely careful. You don’t take advantage of [being] Santa,” Valent said. “I tell them from the beginning: The spirit is love and giving.”
If a child cries, Santas should suggest that the parent join them in the photo, said Valent’s wife, Holly, who is occasionally known as Mrs. Claus.
Santas are taught to make sure their hands are always visible and to never pick up a child without a parent’s permission. If a child is uncomfortable with the photo, Santas should try to have a conversation, ask the child what he or she wants for Christmas or share a story about the North Pole, Holly Valent said.
At the Fair Oaks Mall, Testerman decided not to make her daughter sit on Santa’s lap. Instead, she went with an unconventional Santa photo.
Harlyn sat on the purple armchair next to the stuffed dog and a copy of “The Night Before Christmas.” Santa, meanwhile, pretended to hide behind the armchair, popping his head up for a photo.
Harlyn waved at the camera and then giggled as she looked back at the big man in red.
“She’s sticking her tongue out at me!” Santa said.
“This is priceless,” the photographer said, laughing.
The photo was both charming and stress-free — a less intimidating option for both Harlyn and her mother, “especially in today’s world,” Testerman said.