A beautifully dressed two-year-old waits in line to see Santa Claus. When it’s her turn, Santa says, “Come here, little girl,” and the girl’s parents say, “Go sit on his lap.” She listens, looks at the smiling face in front of her, and bursts into tears. She’s afraid of Santa.
It often surprises parents to learn that many children fear such a friendly character. After all, from a parent’s perspective, Santa represents kindness and the spirit of gift giving. When your child resists sitting on Santa’s lap, you may become embarrassed and easily wonder, “What’s wrong with my child?” You may try to force her to sit on Santa’s lap or use bribes. “If you sit on Santa’s lap, you’ll get toys for Christmas.” Even when parents are patient, they can be unsuccessful in getting their young child to come in contact with Santa. Young children struggle and resist him out of fear, and it’s almost impossible to convince them not to be afraid.
Most children under the age of five believe that what they hear and see is real. They regard their own perspectives as absolute and for them, Santa is real. They see him in shopping malls, they read and sing about him, and their parents talk as though he truly exists.
Santa, with a rather deep voice and a beard that covers most of his face, can be scary-looking to a young child. Since a child’s in contact with Santa only during the Christmas season, he’s unfamiliar. Children don’t go to unfamiliar people with ease. A young child’s not sure Santa’s nice, and parents aren’t always reassuring about his looks. While you tell your child that a Halloween character or a clown is only someone dressed in a costume, you don’t say that Santa, too, is wearing a costume. You don’t want your child to know.
A young child’s belief in a real Santa can take on a mysterious quality, giving Santa tremendous power. Santa “knows” when she’s good or bad, and he decides what gifts she’ll receive. He seems omnipotent, flying through the sky, entering her home when she’s asleep, watching her all the time.
A child may worry about being judged by Santa, who will decide if she’s been good enough to get gifts on Christmas. And parents, not realizing their child’s already under a lot of pressure during this time of the year, may say, “You’d better be good, or Santa won’t bring you presents.” Parents often use this line when they’re frustrated with their child’s behavior, but it adds a threatening note to the fun and excitement of Christmas. A child who hears this threat repeatedly may become anxious, silly, aggressive, or fearful.
Realistically, young children can’t live up to Santa’s (or her parents’) expectations of constant good behavior. Young children struggle when they have to pick up their toys, they don’t like to go to bed, they usually don’t brush their teeth or wash their hands and faces without being reminded (at least twice), and they don’t always share, clean up, or help with day-to-day chores. It’s not that children are “bad,” it’s that parents’ and Santa’s expectations are unrealistic.
Given Santa’s power to judge, his unusual appearance, and his ability to see and be everywhere, it’s not surprising when a young child has ambivalent feelings about approaching him. Your child wants to tell Santa what to bring for Christmas, and she wants to please you, but she’s afraid.