By SUE BOLDE, Executive Director
For many, the image of Santa Claus conjures up warm, happy thoughts of a jolly man in red, loaded down with gifts in a magical sleigh pulled by a talented team of reindeer, catching some serious air in the night sky. This beloved holiday figure embodies everything we adore about this time of year… a belief in good things for all.
However, there are a few aspects of the Santa holiday tradition that fly in the face of teaching body safety and proper boundaries to our kids… and the holidays offer adults a wonderful opportunity to reinforce basic rules that can help protect children from sexual abuse.
1) Let’s face it… not all kids like Santa’s lap.
Have you ever witnessed a child crying while sitting on Santa’s lap? It can happen for a variety of reasons, often stemming from a child’s fear of losing control of his or her own body for reasons that are difficult for a young mind to comprehend or accept. While photos with Santa can make for fun memories later in life, the act of forcing a child to sit on a stranger’s lap runs counter to important body safety rules that we must teach our kids.
Respecting a child’s wish to NOT make physical contact with someone — anyone — is a practice that our community must agree to follow if we are truly committed to keeping children safe. Cajoling children to pose or have physical contact with someone without their consent reinforces a social expectation that children should do as they are told, even if it violates their bodily integrity. Internalizing this expectation puts children at risk of being manipulated by predators. Keep in mind, sexual predators often take pictures or videos of their victims.
2) Sexual predators frequently use gifts as a way to groom children.
Gift giving is a wonderful part of the holiday season. Socially, we are taught that gifts are selfless, thoughtful and virtuous expressions of love, friendship or respect. During the holidays, children receive gifts from people they know as well as from those they don’t, like Santa or distant relatives. This time of year offers a great opportunity to teach children to show all gifts that they receive to their caregivers.
Why is this so important? Sexual predators often lure children into trusting them by giving gifts that can range from candy to toys to even bigger things! Showering children with gifts and special attention is a grooming tactic to elicit comfort and investment in the predatory relationship.
Sadly, over 90% of children who are sexually abused know, love or trust their molesters. In other words, people who harm children are most often in a child’s circle of family or friends. Talking with children about gifts or special favors keeps adults mindful of what’s happening in a child’s sphere of relationships and empowers adults with the knowledge to determine if cautionary action is required. Writing thank you cards together is a perfect platform for tallying all gestures of affection.
3) Forced hugging or kissing of relatives is a bad idea.
Do you have a relative who means well but always insists on kissing or hugging your child? Are you one of those relatives yourself? It cannot be overstated that forcing children to kiss grandma or hug Uncle Buck flies in the face of body safety rules that, if followed, help keep kids safe.
Tragically, 30% of child sexual abuse incidents are committed by family members. Parents and step-parents. Uncles and aunts. Grandparents and cousins.
Instead of making your child hug or kiss a family member, step in and say, “We are teaching Emma about body safety and personal boundaries, so we respect her when she does not want to be touched by others, no matter how innocent… but I’ll take that hug!” (Then give your relative a big hug.) Another option would be to encourage kids to give high-fives instead of hugs.
Kids can even high-five Santa if they feel comfortable doing so. ♥
The best way to help others understand safety expectations is to model the behavior you hope to see. Ask every child, including your own, for permission before giving a hug or high five. Ask your spouse or partner permission before showing them affection, especially when in front of children.
Holiday Tips for Caregivers
In addition to supporting your child in his or her decision to respect body boundaries, here are a few more tips for caregivers to help keep kids safe during the holidays:
- Take a moment to remind your child about body safety rules. This can be done in a very child-friendly, non-scary and simple way. For tips on how to have these talks with your child, learn more at Team Zero.
- When going to parties at places unfamiliar to your child, walk around with your child and identify the rooms that are okay to go in, as well as other areas they should avoid.
- Make an agreement with your child that s/he will check-in periodically with you during the party or holiday event you are attending.
- If cocktails are served at the event, please keep yourself in check. If your senses are obstructed, that can present an open door to a sexual predator to gain ready access to your child… again, sexual predators are indeed among us. The sad fact is, they hide in plain sight and are often people most of us think “would never do that to a child.”
The greatest gift we can give ourselves and our children is a commitment to keeping them safe. When we agree to protect our children above all else — even when it means opting out of long-held customs and traditions — then we will be creating a world within which all children may flourish.
About Sue ♥
Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director Sue Bolde has a BA in psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara and an MA in art therapy from the University of Illinois. Her professional career includes clinical work with children and teens at the University of Chicago, graduate-level instruction with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and certification as a Montessori teacher and yoga instructor. She is currently a teacher in training with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as well as a Michigan ACE Initiative trainer.
About Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center ♥
The nationally accredited Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center brings help, hope, and healing to child victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and violence. Our mission is to protect children by supporting multidisciplinary investigations into alleged cases of child abuse by conducting child forensic interviews in an environment that is child-sensitive, supportive and safe. We help heal child victims and their families through our in-house therapeutic services and offer prevention education throughout the region via our Team Zero program. As the Grand Traverse regional response center for the investigation of child abuse, we collaborate with multidisciplinary teams in six counties – Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford – in addition to the Sovereign Nation of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. More than 1,400 children have been referred to the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center since our founding in 2010.