Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice, Christmas, and Santa Claus Visits

For maximum fun, remember that Santa has his scary side.

Discussions of child care often include advice about Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). This term refers to care and interactions with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that fit what young children are able to understand and do. Developmentally appropriate toys for infants of a few months might include soft objects that are easily grasped and have interesting textures, but nothing that the baby would have to sit up to play with. A 10-month-old probably sits firmly and can hold toys with both hands, but couldn't push or pull anything from a standing position. Most 18-month-olds can pull or push toys, but they aren't ready to play even very simple board games. DAP also includes consideration of children's special emotions and fears.

Although we'd like child providers to practice DAP, as parents and grandparents we sometimes forget to do this ourselves-- especially at Christmastime. The result can be that young children are upset, and we adults are unhappy that our excellent plans for a wonderful holiday have somehow gone astray. Here are some points about Santa Claus that may help readers avoid that sense of festive disaster that can intrude when we get developmentally inappropriate:

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Many parents fret and argue about whether to tell the little guys that Santa Claus is really Daddy, and what to do if they figure this out for themselves (and, worse, tell younger brothers and sisters the awful truth). I don't think there is any right or "developmentally appropriate" answer to this issue for 4-year-olds and up. Is your family still having fun with the Santa legend? There seems to be no reason to stop talking about Santa if all hands are pleased. As to your children figuring out that you lied-- well, that will happen eventually, because you have lied about other things and no doubt will do it again. (Believe me, if you don't have teenagers yet, the day will come when you'll be grateful if they lie to YOU about certain things. And it certainly behooves us not to tell all the truth to all the children all the time.)

A bigger problem about Santa Claus has to do with the older infant-toddler-young preschooler group. Children who are old enough to have formed attachments to familiar people also have a tendency to be wary of strangers, and the more unusual those people are, the greater the anxiety. An unusual, unfamiliar figure like a costumed Santa Claus is frightening to most young children, who seek proximity to familiar people in order to feel more comfortable. I don't want to suggest that a visit to Santa Claus is psychologically traumatic and should be avoided at all costs. However, parents of young children should not expect that the child will be pleased, comfortable, and ready to be pals with Santa without the support of familiar adults. There are no toys so fascinating that the prospect of getting them over-rides stranger and separation anxiety in young human beings.

If everyone is to have a good time, parents need to be sensitive to the child's cues of distress, and to offer or permit the kind of physical closeness that can help him or her cope with the unknown. Certainly, parents should not let social embarrassment or the desire to take a really good picture for the Christmas cards make them scold a reluctant child or withhold the support the child needs. The result of that is bound to be a bit of misery for all concerned.

Parents usually have a pretty good idea whether a particular child is temperamentally friendly and outgoing, or whether he or she is cautious and slow to warm up in new situations. The slow-to-warm-up child won't warm up any more quickly just because the new situation involves Santa Claus. By the way, if you've noticed that a toddler was really afraid of Halloween masks and costumes, keep in mind that he or she may react badly to Santa and elves. The point at Halloween was not that the masks involved "scary things", but simply that they were masks; to the young child, a vampire mask and a Santa Claus mask are about equally scary.

One more point about all this: the visit to Santa Claus, while exciting and potentially pleasurable to younger children, involves anxieties that will be all the more intense if there are family troubles to consider. If this is the first Christmas of a marital separation, I'd suggest that you might want to keep things calmer than usual. Especially if you are a non-custodial parent, don't imagine that you will give your toddler or preschooler a treat by doing a Santa visit. That child may already have his stocking full of coal in the form of new and difficult situations to cope with. (And, need I say it-- taking the child to see Santa and bringing along your new companion would be a very selfish act.)

We should remember, too, what confusing mixed messages we give to preschoolers about this kind of situation. Don't talk to strangers; you don't have to answer questions strange people ask you; if strange people touch you, you should tell them you don't like it. All those are good everyday rules for modern life, but here we go at Christmas-time and reverse them: talk to Santa nicely; tell him what you want for Christmas; sit on his lap (of all things!). If you can think of a way to explain to a preschooler why different rules apply at different times, you're doing better than I am.



Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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