By Justine O’Malley

I have been teaching Protective Behaviours for the past 20 years and every year I rejoice in the fact that more and more parents understand that children have the right to make their own decisions about personal space and physical touch – until it comes to the silly season that is!

For almost 11 months of the year parents around Australia teach children about the importance of consent and body autonomy. They empower their children to be in charge of giving and receiving affection and physical touch and demonstrate that the trusted adults in their lives will respect their feelings and help them to keep safe.

However, walk through any shopping centre from mid-November (yes Santa’s workload appears to have increased) until Christmas Eve and you will witness a time warp of epic proportions.

As frazzled parents line up with freshly scrubbed children in sparkling dresses and festive themed T-shirts the bribery begins… “If you wait nicely in line and have a big smile when you are sitting on Santa’s lap you can have an icecream/chocolate/pretty much anything!”

After 20 mins waiting in line the promise of a McDonalds 50 cent cone is wearing thin so the blackmail commences… “Stop running around and skidding on the floor you will ruin your new clothes. It’s our turn soon and you need to smile at the camera or you won’t be watching a movie/going for a swim/pretty much anything!”

Once the wait has surpassed the half an hour mark the threats start… “We are next, stop crying, you aren’t scared of Santa, you have been waiting all year for this. You need to give Santa a big hug and smile for the camera or Santa will put you on the naughty list!”

Bribery, blackmail and threats such as the above might make you laugh as you think about your own similar experiences however it is time that we considered the mixed messages that we are sometimes sending our children.

You are the boss of your body – except at Christmas time.

You don’t have to hug people if you don’t want to – except Santa and not only will you hug him you will sit on his knee.

We encourage you to recognise and share your feelings – no no no you aren’t scared of Santa, he brings presents.

So what can parents do differently?

We aren’t about to suggest a Santa boycott but do recommend that you provide your child with some choice and control. If they do want to visit Santa and of course many children are eager to share their Christmas list with the Jolly Old Fellow, spend some time preparing them. Walk past Santa’s grotto prior to the day you are planning on photos and check out the set up, use this as an opportunity to discuss how they are feeling about meeting Santa. Is the chair big enough to sit next to Santa? Show your children how they can choose to stand or sit or even watch from behind the fence. Some children want to speak with Santa but prefer their parents or carers stay with them. If your child tells you they don’t want to sit with Santa or become upset, acknowledge their feelings, give them some choices (my son’s first Santa photo was on my knee whilst I sat next to Santa) and respect these choices.

This process possibly may not result in a Santa snap to stick on the fridge and hand out to Grandparents but you will have utilised a very important teachable moment, that even at Christmas time children are in charge of their own bodies, they can decide who touches their body and how it happens and that the trusted adults in their lives will listen and believe them when they express their feelings and never force them to have physical contact with someone if they don’t want to.

A Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night….

Justine O’Malley is a teacher and a social worker who is passionate about child abuse prevention and keeping children safe. She lives in Western Australia with her husband and teenage son. Justine is one of Australia’s most experienced Protective Behaviours educators. Justine is a qualified Teacher and Accredited Social Worker with over 29 years’ experience working in the education and child protection sectors. Justine served for 16 years on the board of Protective Behaviours Australia and 18 years at Protective Behaviours WA. Justine has taught Protective Behaviours to children, young people, parents and professionals across Australia and internationally. Justine is the author of Jasmine’s Butterflies and Michael’s Bubbles, two popular Protective Behaviours storybooks and has been the editor of a number of Protective Behaviours resources, including K-7 lesson plans for the WA Department of Education.