Parents can be surprised and dismayed when Santa-phobia occurs, particularly if they dressed their toddler up and waited in a long line in hopes of having a cheery holiday photo to show for the effort.
Kids who recoil from Father Christmas are probably behaving in a developmentally appropriate way, says Jean Mercer, author of “Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings” (2012).
Infants typically won’t mind being bounced briefly on Santa’s knee. But by 8 or 9 months, “stranger anxiety” kicks in, making many older babies and young children wary of new people. Parents cultivate this natural aversion when they tell their children not to talk to strangers. “We send mixed messages when we tell children to not talk to strangers, but then sit them on a stranger’s lap,” Dr. Mercer says.
Santa isn’t just any stranger, but a strange-looking one, with his billowing beard and bellowing laugh. He may give a child a fixed look. “Humans, like other mammals, are made uneasy by the stare of an unfamiliar person,” Dr. Mercer says. Santa may hold a tot around the waist to prevent the child from falling off his knee, and the restraint may disturb the child.
How do you prep your kids to meet Santa?