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"What I think every time I see a photo of a child sitting on Santa's lap."

Right now, parents on Facebook are having intense discussions about Santa photos. Some put a lot of planning into it, asking around to find the best Santa with the best backdrop. They book ahead for the most popular ones, or are prepared to wait in long queues.

I always wonder – are they doing it for their kids, or for themselves?

Because around this time of year, every year, I see those Santa photos. You know the ones – where the kids clearly don’t want to be anywhere near that jolly bearded guy in a red suit. Sometimes they’re babies who have their faces screwed up, wailing at being temporarily separated from their parents. Sometimes they’re toddlers who have alarmed looks as they stare up at the strange man who’s holding them. Who is this guy?

A lot of parents find these photos hilarious. They always make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Sure, it’s only once a year. But should we really be shoving our children in a stranger’s lap and telling them to sit there and smile, if they clearly don’t want to be there?

Popular parenting expert and dad-of-six Dr Justin Coulson has a pretty firm opinion.

“Seriously, just no,” he tells Mamamia. “I don’t know where we get the idea from that seeing our kids suffer and experience fear and anxiety is funny. Any thinking, empathic parent is going to recognise that this is a stressful situation for some children and there is absolutely no benefit to it.”

Dr Coulson says he doesn’t have a problem with parents putting their kids on Santa’s lap for a photo if the child feels good about it.

“But if the child is non-consenting, then the parent’s just being a bully,” he adds. “Parents have got to stop bullying their children. It’s using their power to force their child into an uncomfortable situation that just makes them feel awful.

“We make a really big deal about teaching our children about body boundaries, about body safety and about consent. And all of a sudden we make this bizarre exception for a stranger in a red suit in a shopping centre.”

There are two types of Christmas people. Which one are you?

Video by MMC

Dr Kimberley O’Brien, the principal child psychologist at The Quirky Kid Clinic, agrees. She thinks parents should be putting the child first.

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“If they don’t feel comfortable, then don’t push through,” she tells Mamamia.

“There’s nothing funny about making a child feel scared and taking a photo of them when they’re crying.”

Dr O’Brien says it’s quite normal for a two-year-old to be wary of a stranger, because that’s the age when separation anxiety is at its worst. She believes that if children say they don’t want to sit in Santa’s lap, parents should praise them.

“Say, ‘Well done. I wouldn’t want to sit in a stranger’s lap either, so I’m glad we’re going to go and do something different. I’m proud of you. Thanks for letting me know.’”

She says the Santa photo is “going against all those stranger danger messages”.

“It is quite up close and personal, isn’t it?

There are other ways to get that photo that are less likely to make children feel uncomfortable. Dr O’Brien says it’s very different if the Santa is someone that the kids already know.

“Like if they’ve got someone at the surf club or at soccer and they’re dressed up as Santa and it’s fun and the kids actually know who it is, that’s a totally different dynamic,” she explains. “It’s hilarious. They chase the Santa around and they try and pull the costume off, maybe.”

Dr Coulson says another way to do it is to get the whole family in the photo.

“Get Mum and Dad, or Mum and Mum, to sit in the photo with the child, and the child is on the parent’s or the caregiver’s lap. That’s one way to make it a positive experience for everybody.”

He has another question for parents who are focused on getting that photo with Santa.

“Why do we perpetuate the Santa myth in the first place?”

But perhaps that’s a subject for a different post…

What do you think of taking Santa photos with your kids? Tell us in a comment below.

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