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Respecting Kids’ Boundaries at the Holidays

When the holidays come around each year, people get excited to involve children in the rich traditions and festivities that they’ve always known. Parents envision their little ones sitting on Santa’s lap, greeting extended family with great affection, and attending big events with magic in their eyes.

And inevitably, the little ones have opinions of their own about those things.

When we picture the holidays, we don’t tend to imagine the ways in which kids may not cooperate with big smiles on their faces. We don’t picture them getting overstimulated by crowds and noise and clinging on to their parents like spider monkeys. We don’t visualize them pulling away from Grandma’s warm hug. And we don’t picture toddlers adamantly refusing to sit on Santa’s lap. But these things do happen, time after time, year after year, and it’s how children show us their boundaries.

That latter one is a particular thorn in my side. I fully admit that I’ve smiled and giggled over many of those crying kid photos! But when I put myself in the child’s shoes, my laughter comes to a halt. How awful it must feel to be plopped in the lap of a stranger and be terrified out of your mind – only for the people you most trust in the world to laugh and take pictures of you in that vulnerable state.

I’m thinking if that happened to me right now (perhaps not in Santa’s lap, but an adult-level scenario), I’d feel betrayed. Embarrassed. Hurt.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “But sitting on Santa’s lap is a tradition, Amanda! Lighten up!” Or, “I’m teaching my kids to respect their Grandma!” I truly do understand where that perspective comes from. After all, all survived those things as kids, right? Seeing children set boundaries on them can bring up feelings of discomfort, embarrassment, and guilt in us.

And responding to family members’ impatient or hurt reactions can admittedly be BRUTAL.

But I encourage you to ask yourself what we teach children when they make their boundaries CLEARLY known to us – but we choose to ignore them. (Or worse, we laugh at them and take pictures.) The messages they receive from us in those moments include:

  • My wish for entertainment/tradition comes before your comfort and sense of safety
  • I will not respect your boundaries if it’s inconvenient, awkward, or disappointing for me
  • A family member’s desire for affection is more important than your desire for space

If it’s important to you that your children learn how to set boundaries AND come to trust that you’ll back them up, then it’s important to take those messages into consideration. Children learn who they can trust to honor their boundaries through small, daily encounters like this. The situation, however fun and light-hearted it’s supposed to be, DOES matter. Your response does matter. It’s not a child’s job to save us from uncomfortable feelings!

Here are some examples of ways you can show respect for your child’s boundaries during the holidays:

  • “No, you don’t have to sit on Santa’s lap. Do you want to stand near him for a photo?”
  • “I heard Grandpa tell you he’ll be upset if you don’t eat the pie he made. It’s okay to listen to your body.”
  • “You don’t have to hug Auntie. Do you want to give her a high five or wave?”
  • “There are lots of people here, huh? You can stay close to me if you get overwhelmed.”
  • “You don’t like how the big kids are playing. It’s okay to take your toys to the back bedroom if you like.”

Say it with me: kids deserve bodily autonomy, and to choose who they offer affection to. They deserve to have their feelings respected. They deserve breaks when they’re overstimulated. Help them advocate for themselves so they can do it on their own one day.

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