This is cool when everyone’s cool with it

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr used under a Creative Commons License

The scene is familiar and it’s the stuff of many an awkward family photo: a terrified and/or crying little girl or boy, sitting reluctantly on a weary mall/Christmas party Santa’s lap.

Most of us have starred in this scene and most of us own photographic evidence of it. After all, putting your kid on a strange man’s lap is just something we do, like so many other holiday traditions.

Now, let’s be clear: I have nothing against imposter Santas and their sacks of lies. (I feel for these people; on the scale of Demoralizing Things We Do For Money, Mall Santa has got to be up there.) I’m also not suggesting that imposter Santas are creepsters who prey on children.

And I have zero issues with little kids who sincerely believe that this random guy in a cheap, barely convincing beard is the real deal and are going ABSOLUTELY APESHIT for the chance to score some one-on-one time with the big man in red. Great. Semi-adorable, even.

What bothers me about this particular holiday tradition is seeing panicked kids who are being forced to sit on Santa’s lap when they really, really just want to get the fuck out of there. All so that their parents can get that iconic snap. Because it’s just something we do.

Everyone (usually) laughs while a child is crying because s/he is scared and doesn’t understand what’s happening. That’s actually pretty fucked up when you break it down.

Because here’s the thing: children are actual people and, as such, their developing senses of personal space deserve respect. You know, the same kind of respect you’d extend to an adult.

What kind of message does it send to a child when they are made to do something uncomfortable even after they’ve said — or implied, through the kicking, screaming or paralyzed silence — that they didn’t want to do it?

We talk a lot on this blog about rape culture and what we can do to counter it. A lot of it comes down to education. After all, we can’t cross our fingers and hope that our kids will have everything figured out the minute they become sexual beings.

As I’ve written before, it’s vitally important that The Talk be a series of talks, talks that cover consent, boundaries, empathy and respect — and why those things are so, so important.

And we can start by respecting our kids’ own boundaries.

Eryn Ryan Fitzgerald wrote an excellent piece for xojane titled I Wish I Had A Parenting Book About How Not to Raise a Rapist. Fitzgerald is the mother of a two-year-old boy. As she says, teaching him to respect others starts with respecting him.

I listen to him when he says he doesn’t want to be hugged or kissed, because that’s what I’d do if he were an adult. When we’re saying goodbye to friends around his age, I say ‘Ask your friends if they want a hug or kiss goodbye.’ It helps introduce to my child the concept of asking for consent, and my behavior is an example of someone acting out of concern for other people’s boundaries being respected.

It’s sad but not surprising that Fitzgerald struggles with her son’s interactions with adults, which, of course, recalls another well-worn holiday trope: a kid being kissed, pinched and snuggled by some well-meaning, usually heavily lipsticked aunt without permission.

Again, it’s a familiar scene, usually played for laughs.

I know, ideally, I want other adults to ask to hug, kiss, and cuddle him, and respect him when he says no. So many do, but not everyone. I cringe every time someone asks my child for a kiss and he says no, but they grab him and kiss him anyways, while smiling and laughing. What does that teach him about how others can treat his body, and how he can treat others’ bodies? I wish I spoke up more when this happens, but sometimes the awkwardness of the moment stops me.

Just as the awkwardness of harried holiday shoppers staring at a screaming child makes parents thrust them on Santa’s lap just to get it over with.

But what a missed teachable moment.

Asking kids for their consent — whether it’s for a hug or a kiss, or to sit on Santa’s lap — and respecting the answer is possibly the biggest small thing we can do for them.

That simple act, paired with lifelong lessons on respecting others’ feelings, thoughts, boundaries and bodies, will go a long way in helping children grow up into adults who understand that consent is the presence of yes, not the absence of no.