It's the most wonderful time of year, when visions of perfect mall Santa photos dance in the heads of parents with young children. Some of these parents dream of getting a swoon-worthy picture of their kid and Santa to use on their holiday card. If you find yourself in this boat (or would it be sleigh?), it's important to lower your expectations.
Because your chances of getting this near-mythic photo are about the same as your chances of snapping a photo of Taylor Swift and Kanye West batting eyes at each other over a banana split at your local ice cream shop.
Are we exaggerating how hard it is? Maybe a little. But to avoid heartbreak, it's wise to prepare yourself ahead of time for the strong possibility that you will end up with a photo of your little one wailing in Santa's arms. Once you accept that this might (or will) happen, you'll realize that a photo like that is actually a lot of fun. It's not only hilarious, but will offer you an epic opportunity to embarrass your kid in 15 years when you show it to their girlfriend or boyfriend.
If, however, you still have dreams of getting that smiling photo with ol' Saint Nick, there are a few things you can plan to do ahead of time to maximize your (very small) chance of success.
Timing is everything
Go right when Santa's village opens or when other kids are in school. Odds are a small child will lose it even if they don't have to wait a single minute to meet Santa, but if they have to wait 45 minutes within plain sight of the mall's Cinnabon, those odds are way, way higher.
If you're going to have to wait, pack for it: To keep your kid happy in line — and thus possibly happy with Santa — you will need plenty of snacks, juice boxes and toys. Just don't bring cheese puffs or fruit punch if you don't want your kid's clothes to look like a Jackson Pollack painting by the time you reach the front of the line.
Use the buddy system
Bring an extra adult. Just like an unstable celebrity needs a couple wranglers to keep from ending up on TMZ when he leaves the house, a small kid is going to need more than one wrangler to be kept in check as you wait your turn.
Dress for success
Dress and groom your toddler or preschooler to the nines. There is nothing sadder than winning the mall Santa equivalent of the lottery and getting that all-smiles photo when your kiddo is wearing a ratty T-shirt. And bring some wipes or tissues so your little one doesn't red Santa's lap with a crusty or runny nose.
If things go code red, stay cool
Once you reach the front of the line you likely will find that your kid, who until that moment had only ever been delighted by Santa on TV, is petrified by the sight of the real deal. If this happens, it's best not to say things like, "Be nice or he won't bring you any presents," which will only upset your little one even more. Instead, try giving Santa a hug to show your kid that he's friendly and no one to fear.
Lastly, you need to know that if your kid's photo with Santa ends up a total disaster, you can usually leave without buying it. There's also no shame in buying the cheapest package possible no matter how much attitude the pushy elf at checkout gives you. Good luck, parents, and may the odds ever be in your favor.
Mike and Heather Spohr wrote The Toddler Survival Guide, on sale now.