Santa's lap...it's scary; Don't force tradition on kids, Hoot says


News Services Editorial Assistant

"You better watch out; who cares if you cry?" appears to be the attitude of parents who force their young children to sit on Santa Claus' lap, a practice that a UB educator considers to be a form of child abuse.

Jim Hoot, professor and director of the Early Childhood Research Center in the Graduate School of Education, says parents should not force this tradition, since sitting on Santa's lap or being held by Santa may be too overwhelming for young children.

"From 10 to about 17 months old, children experience severe separation anxiety and are typically scared of strangers," notes Hoot, a past president of the Association for Childhood Education International.

He warns that it isn't worth the trauma endured by the child just to capture a photo. While parents may view Santa as benevolent, the innocent toddler probably sees him as a "big, scary creature with a long, white beard."

Hoot has witnessed a number of parents upset young children during the holiday season by taking them to see jolly old St. Nick, often before they are old enough to recite their gift wish list.

"Anyone can stand at a mall this time of year and watch parents of children this age have pictures taken while the child is clearly in distress," Hoot says.

In addition to being potentially traumatizing, Hoot says the practice also sends a confusing, mixed message to children who are cautioned by their parents to "stay away from strangers," but then find themselves being placed on a stranger's lap by their parents.

Hoot says many parents don't anticipate or consider a child's fear because as adults they focus on Santa's respected reputation as the bearer of gifts and holiday cheer.

Hoot says that children's fear of Santa Claus generally fades and they are able to appreciate him once they learn to talk. By the time they enter school, they start to question Santa's reality.

"Typically by first grade, all children have had the idea put into their heads that Santa isn't real," he says.

An experienced parent himself, Hoot considers Santa a symbol of fantasy and encourages other parents to "prolong the fantasy as long as possible."

"Parents are experts at evading issues," he says. "They should not consider themselves liars for promoting a child's imagination. Fantasy is a wonderful thing."

He believes it's normal and healthy for children to believe in fantasy and that parents shouldn't worry about undermining a child's trust if they evade the truth.

Questions about the reality of Santa are a "rite of passage," according to Hoot. The fantasy then involves introducing Santa to other kids or younger siblings. He believes adults' memories of joy from believing in Santa are enough to make them want to create the mystical feeling in others.

"Parents tend to avoid uncomfortable subjects when dealing with children, whether it be Santa or 'the birds and the bees,'" says Hoot. "It's like we want to avoid breaking them into the real world."

He emphasizes that parents, when asked by a child whether there really is a Santa Claus, should try to practice "loving avoidance" by changing the subject or saying how much they, too, enjoy Santa and look forward to his visit each year.

Hoot adds that parents should keep the message very simple when kids inquire about Santa's identity.

"Don't get too technical," he said. "Promote the spirit of the issue, based on the idea that Santa perpetuates the world as a joyous place."

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