From the tight grip on her mother’s neck and teary pout on her face, it was clear the only thing the little redhead in pink wanted from Santa was distance.
Her mother, Debbie Zielinski, didn’t force the issue, just carried 2-year-old Rebecca out of Santa’s shopping mall wonderland. No picture on Santa’s lap this year.
“It’ll only scare her more later if we forced it on her,” said Rebecca’s father, Frank.
The Zielinskis did the right thing, a childhood researcher said.
“I’ve seen so many terrified children” thrust upon Santa’s lap, said University of Buffalo professor Jim Hoot. “I don’t know how you cannot conceive that that’s abusive.”
Children not old enough to talk probably won’t cherish memories of their visit with Santa, said Hoot, director of the Early Childhood Research Center at UB’s Graduate School of Education.
But the kids aren’t upset because of a fear of white beards or red velour. Children ages 10 to 17 months tend to suffer from something called separation anxiety when they lose sight of their parents, even if it’s just for a few seconds on Santa’s lap. The toddlers don’t understand that it is just a temporary situation.
And for older children, the problem may be confusion because their parents have taught them to beware of strangers, Hoot said.
The Santa Claus shunned by Rebecca, known as Jeff Strunk when he’s not wearing the red suit and white beard, has seen his share of tears at the Walden Galleria Mall, a few miles east of Buffalo.
“I remember times where I could feel the child just shaking in my arms,” he said.
He tries his best to soothe his visitors, calling them by name or stroking their arms.
“I try to make a memory for a child,” Strunk said. “Santa is unconditional love. He’s not supposed to be threatening.”
Phyllis Santana, who helps direct the children to Santa’s lap, estimated about half cry once they get there.
“The parents are brutal,” she said. “We’ve had a few mothers we thought were child abusers.”
She recalled one who spent 45 minutes waiting for her child to stop crying long enough for a picture.
“It’s like if they didn’t get a picture she was going to beat him,” she said.
Hoot suggested that until a child is old enough to understand the fantasy, a parent might consider sitting on Santa’s other knee to stay in close contact with the child.
“The nicest experience is when the child begins to talk,” Strunk said. “They’re real believers.”