How to avoid a 'Santa fail' photo this year

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For many families, posing with the Jolly Old Elf himself is a quintessential holiday photo op. But it may not always be a pretty picture.

You know the scene: It's a crowded day at the shopping mall, or maybe there's a bustling line to see Santa Claus at your favorite community celebration. A parent manages to coax, or force, a child to sit on his knee then three, two, one ... total meltdown. Tears streaming, feet kicking, top-of-the-lungs screaming outburst. The child and caregiver leave, frustrated, and with a less-than-angelic looking Kodak moment.

Anyone is prone to this experience, but there are ways to make it manageable, local early childhood experts say.

"I think the main thing is that [kids] have to be prepared ahead of time," said Amy Mandel, a special education teacher for the Crosby Elementary Preschool in Pittsfield, Mass.

"Especially if you're going to the mall, let them know they're going to have to stand in line. You can discuss what does [Santa] look like and what you can ask him," said Mandel. "You can also give them some options. For example, some kids might not sit on Santa's lap — it shouldn't be forced upon them — but it's also OK to just stand next to him. It's all about their comfort level."

Sue o LeBlond, early education outreach specialist for Windham Child Care Association in Brattleboro, Vt., agreed that experiences shouldn't be pushed on a child with the expectation that they have to like it.

"I think the most important thing is to remember to make sure it stays fun and engaging, and to adjust as soon as the child shows signs of stress," said LeBlond. "Those negative experiences a child can have can last a long time. It stays in their memory, and they could have an adverse reaction for the next year. For me personally, I wouldn't suggest talking it up, but rather letting it unroll naturally.

"The biggest thing," she said, "is really not to force it. That's just going to backfire."

Both Mandel and LeBlond said once at the venue where the child will be meeting St. Nick, it's important to explain to them that, because they're being accompanied by a parent, grandparent, or caregiver, it's a safe situation to be meeting, essentially, this stranger to them.

"But you still want them to be leery of strangers, in my opinion," Mandel said. "So, you have to explain to them that this is a controlled, safe situation, and that, if you want to, you can talk to Santa, and if you don't, that's OK. Some kids are going to run and jump up into his lap and other kids are going to be scared."

The educators said doing a trial run can be helpful. For example, if you're at the mall, do a simple walk by and watch how the child reacts. Does she express a natural curiosity? Does he avoid getting too close? Does the child have any questions?

LeBlond noted, "Hopefully, parents and caregivers have a real sense of their kids and can read them well."

Another approach is to let the child watch other children approach Santa Claus, and talk about their observations of the interactions and listen for whether the child has any hesitations. If so, ask more about why they feel that.

"We can ask them, 'Are you feeling scared? Is this overwhelming for you?' Letting them know they're safe in this situation is important," LeBlond said.

It's also important for caregivers to be mindful not only of how the child reacts to Santa, but also the holiday environment, which can also be crowded and noisy, or have lots of moving and blinking decorations, which may result in sensory overload.

Take your time and watch for cues in this case, too. Accompany the child, if necessary, to avoid the shriek-inducing scene that the children in "A Christmas Story" had with a department store Santa and his grumpy elves.

If, during the visit with Santa, the child grows agitated, upset or fearful, the grown-ups involved in the situation should maintain a calm demeanor and even tone. No yelling or pleading.

"If it continues to escalate, it's the responsibility of the adult to respect the kid's feelings," said LeBlond.

You can always walk away and come back, or try it another day after talking about it some more.

In contrast, some kids may go gaga for Father Christmas, and may not want to leave without handing him their wish list and having him check it twice.

LeBlond offers advice on that: "Talk to them about going up there with three clear ideas, because Santa doesn't like greedy kids."

Visiting Santa can also be an opportune time for kids to practice etiquette, saying "please," "thank you" and social gestures like eye contact and shaking hands and taking turns in line.

"The more conversation you can have about it, the better the outcomes," LeBlond said.

"Again, the main thing is to be prepared, and that goes for anything, not even just Santa. It's for anything," Mandel said. "Adults don't like having things just thrown at them either."


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