Oz catches ‘Santa’s lap’ panic

An Australian child protection adviser has called for shopping centres to ‘update child protection policies’ so that children ‘stand beside Santa’ rather that sit on his knee. This sparked a national debate about the rights and wrongs of sitting on Santa’s knee (Is it wrong if the child asks to do it? Where should Santa put his hands? Which part of the knee?)

What is striking is the similarities between British and Australian child protection cultures, with a shared concern about the dangers of interaction between children and this strange disguised man in dark spaces. This level of concern simply doesn’t exist on the Continent.

But it is also striking that the UK discussion appears to be several years ahead of the Australian. In the UK, the ‘Santa’s knee’ question first became an issue around 2002-3, along with concerns about child photography and the rise of vetting.

Already in 2002, the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service had issued guidelines for Santa’s grottos which advised against ‘Santa’s lap':

    – Ideally, use one of your organisation’s ‘approved’ children’s workers as Santa. The worker will then have been recruited in accordance with the Government’s ‘Safe from Harm’ policy, and a criminal records check will have been undertaken.
    – If using someone else, then Father Christmas should always have a suitably dressed assistant present, who is an approved worker.
    – Ensure that touching and contact remain in the child’s control. Provide a seat or a bench for the children to sit on, rather than encouraging them to sit on Santa’s lap.
    – Ensure that Santa is in an area which is as well-lit and public.

Similar guidelines became established in voluntary and commercial organisations in the course of the early 2000s. In 2006, the Rotary Club guidelines stated:

    – If there is to be any contact with children, even if it is not physical contact, Santa must be accompanied by at least one other person at all times: this is in addition to any adult that accompanies the child. If that level of support cannot be maintained Santa should ‘go off duty’. The arrangements must be such that there cannot be any possibility of Santa being placed in unaccompanied ‘one-to-one’ contact with a child in a ‘private’ place such as a ‘grotto’.
    – Santa should be located in a place open to the view of the public rather than be placed in an enclosed ‘grotto’.
    – It is recommended that children stand when talking to Santa or sit on a seat placed along side Santa. Santa, and his assistants, should not invite children to sit on Santa’s knee. Some children may wish to sit on Santa’s knee and even clamber on: if it is the child’s wish it may be allowed with the parent’s consent.
    – Sometimes parents place a ‘kicking and screaming child’ on Santa’s knee: that should be strongly
    discouraged. Parents should remain with their child at all times.
    – Santa or assistants should not actively invite children to ‘kiss’ Santa. If a child wishes to kiss Santa this should be on the cheek. Parents should be discouraged from making their children kiss Santa or assistants. It is preferable for children to shake hands or ‘blow’ a kiss.

By now, such rules have become canon law, with the umbrella child protection Safe Network recommending this year:

    – It is best practice for Santa to be accompanied by at least one other person at all times; this is in addition to any adult that accompanies the child. If that level of support cannot be maintained at any point during the day then you should consider letting Santa ‘go off duty’.
    – The arrangements must be such that there cannot be any possibility of Santa being placed in unaccompanied ‘one-to-one’ contact with a child in a ‘private’ place such as a grotto.
    – It is recommended that children are given the option to stand when talking to Santa or sit on a seat placed along-side Santa – this is common practice in many grottos across the country.

Looking at the Australian debate, what is striking is that there is still a debate, and that the ‘tradition’ of sitting on Santa’s knee is defended by some. One Santa said: ‘I do wonder about the legal stance of dictating what people can and cannot do with their own children, and I’m incredulous as to what some people say in the modern world’. A mother and ‘Christmas experience’ photographer said: ‘Child protection don’t need to get involved, it’s up to parents to decide what is best for their child. Parent’s need to be able to make decisions, and choices are being taken away in a lot of different situations.’

In the UK, by contrast, the issue was settled years ago. A Christmas grotto done by the book means: a criminal records checked Santa invites a child to sit on a bench in a brightly lit, open area, being surveyed by his (similarly vetted and appropriately addressed) elf, after which the child blows a kiss goodbye…




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