It was our second Christmas as a family of three and I was going to nail it.
I planned the picture-perfect outfit for my daughter.
I even planned ahead with snacks and small toys to keep her busy while we waited in line.
One of many lessons I now know as a seasoned parent with tots who’ve grown into teens and young adults is that despite your planning and attempt to control all things, life will twist and wiggle and turn. You can drown or adapt.
So, imagine my surprise as a first-time mom when, after standing in line with my excitement building for the hour and a half it took to get there, my daughter didn’t want to do it.
“Ho, ho, ho!” The festive Santa let out a jolly ole laugh as he patted his knee and invited my daughter to sit on his lap. “Tell me what you want for Christmas!”
She squirmed as I gently nudged her forward. This was IT! All the fun from my childhood was going to be passed onward to my offspring with holiday cheer and cookies and Rudolph and, of course, Santa!
But she didn’t move closer to him. Instead, she hid behind me.
The line of impatient parents and kids groaned behind us as we stalled. My cheeks felt flush and I felt flustered.
I knelt down and started to do what most parents do .. sway my child, telling her it was safe … fun … the thing to do.
C’mon just smile for the picture so we can capture our happy memory of the day.
But who was I trying to convenience here, me or her?
When I dropped into the moment, and my relationship with my child, I realized that it wasn’t her who needed to go but me who needed to stop.
With her whole body, my child was telling me about her experience - and it didn’t feel fun or safe to her.
We left that day without a picture on Santa’s lap. I thought I would feel bummed, but instead, I felt grateful - grateful that I didn’t force my child to do something that she didn’t want to do.
Having no picture was better than getting a picture of her on Santa’s lap crying in terror. Her discomfort wasn’t worth my agenda.
Funny thing about a child’s intuition. They know what is right for them. They know when it is time to say “Hi” or when to give that family member a hug or when to sit on Santa’s lap. Or when not to at all.
When the adults in their lives tell them that those feelings and that knowing are wrong, inconvenient, or not acceptable, it dampens their intuition - that internal barometer of what is good and bad - and that voice that guides them becomes muffled. By the time children grow into adults, that voice is often a whisper, if even recognizable at all.
Children have consent over their bodies. Period. Doesn’t matter if they are two or twenty-two. It doesn’t matter what is expected or what is convenient or what we have been programmed to believe. Our children are in charge of their bodies and they decide what is a yes and what’s a no for them.
Children are wired to seek approval from their caregivers because it is how they are designed to survive. It is an innate mechanism. How we respond as parents to our children’s intuition and their bids to voice their consent greatly impacts their ability to speak their truth, set boundaries, and trust who they are.
When children learn that approval equates love, they become approval seekers, and they learn to look outward for what is right, good, and valuable.
When our children learn that who they are is love, they become empowered children who grow into powerful adults.
My firstborn was a “cooperative child” and, looking back now, I can see with 20/20 vision (in a way that I couldn’t fully see that day of our Santa visit) that my child didn’t need to be told what to do. She needed to be told that she has a voice and be encouraged to use it, even when it runs against the grain or other people’s expectations of her.
My second child was what many would call “strong-willed.” I realized that she needed permission to know that her body is hers and that she is in charge of what happens with it. The last thing she needed was to have someone squash that powerful voice. Now that she is in college, I see that “strong-willed” personality as leadership potential and I am so glad that I cultivated it instead of dampening it.
It is so hard to see how these hard-to-parent behaviors could play out in the long-haul while we are in the trenches of them. It almost seems “too big” to think about our three, four, and five-year-olds becoming 22 or 23 - how some of the traits that are maddening are the exact traits that become their most beautiful qualities.
My kids did eventually sit on Santa’s lap - my youngest around age four and my oldest around age nine. But not because they were made to, but because they chose it.
Standing here today, witnessing my daughters who are now young adults, I feel more grateful than ever that I decided to listen to that voice inside of me - that I was still able to hear it inside of myself. I’m so glad that I decided to follow that instead of succumbing to the pressures and expectations from outside - the ones that seem to flood you when you are a new, raw parent.
Something really magical happens when you choose relationship over power. You stop fighting with your children to be who you want them to be and become a guide and witness to who they already are.
If you could take a remote to fast forward 10 or 20 years, you may find that by choosing relationship over power, your children have a better relationship not only with you but with themselves.
I’ve done a lot of weight training to grow this muscle over the past 50 years but I had to start somewhere. And it started that day my child decided not to sit on Santa’s lap.