I’m Watching YOU, Elf On The Shelf
We are thrilled to be spending Advent and Christmas in Thailand, and are already finding ways to get into the festive spirit without our usual haul of decorations, calendars and last-minute gift-shopping. So let’s talk about Elf on the shelf.
What is Elf on the shelf?
For those who don’t know, you lucky things, Elf on the shelf is a relatively new Christmas tradition whereby an Elf doll comes to stay with the family for the whole of Advent. The Elf gets up to mischief at night, doing fun and funny things like wrapping the toilet in clingfilm or foil, making Lego toys or sprinkling flour across the kitchen worktop and leaving tiny Elf footprints in it. Generally, this part of Elf on the shelf is good, clean fun.
Evil Elf On The Shelf
Ok, so what could possibly be wrong with Elf on the shelf? Well, the other, gross side of this tradition is that the Elf is often used as some sort of snarky Santa-spy, with children being told that the Elf will report back to Santa whether or not the children have been ‘good’.
This is bad. It’s bad for adults, it’s bad for kids, it’s bad for Santa (jolly old guy, why would you send such evil creatures?) and it’s bad for the reputation of Elves everywhere who just want to help shoemakers and sit on toadstools and not become a massive grass.
Really though, my concern is for the kids (sorry, Elves) and for the relationship between the children and the parents who are using this tactic to manipulate their children’s behaviour. Let’s go through the issues with this tradition:
- It is lying. Children are often not able to distinguish between fantasy and reality; they need us to help them figure that out. Telling children that the Elf is an animate being and ‘watching’ them is a lie, whichever way you cut it. Lying to adults is wrong. Lying to children is wrong. Lying is wrong. I think I’ve covered it.
2. It is manipulative. Think about how you’d feel if you found out that one of your younger children had been telling their siblings that their Lego toy or Minnie Mouse doll or whatever, was ‘watching’ them and threatening them that the younger sibling had to comply with the older kid’s standard of behaviour or they would be punished? (Taking toys away from children or telling them they will be taken away is punishing them). I hope that most people would be horrified to discover this, and I reckon most people would take steps to ensure that it stopped. But a lot of parents are perfectly happy to do this exact same thing to their children, during a time that is supposed to be lovely and heartwarming. Not cool.
3. It is punitive. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that punishment does not have the effect that most people think it does, i.e. to educate someone about the reason they should or should not do something, and to teach someone not to do a behaviour. If this was true, prisons would not be full of second-time offenders. What research has found is that punishing a child makes them motivated to avoid punishment. Don’t want them to hit their siblings? If you punish them you can bet they’ll make sure that next time they hit their siblings, they’ll do it out of your sight. Punishing kids makes them better at avoiding punishment; it doesn’t help develop good character. I’ll do a full post on why we don’t use punishment soon.
4. It is unkind! To proffer the hope and idea of presents and then take away that hope, or threaten to take it away, is unkind. We wouldn’t do it to adults, and we shouldn’t do it to children. Imagine doing it to an elderly person- makes your stomach a bit sick, no? That’s because it isn’t kind. Kindness should not be conditional, and certainly not on the age and vulnerability of the recipient.
If you need more reasons not to use Elf on the shelf as a mean festive spy, remember that kids copy what they experience. Do we really want our children to be looking out for every fault and misdemeanour of others, seeking ways to jump on others’ failures and threaten and punish them?
Elf on the shelf ideas for a kind and happy Christmas
Here are some Elf on the shelf ideas for those who want to focus on respect and connection this Christmas:
- Ask your child if they want the Elf to visit.
- Respond honestly to your child’s questions as to whether the Elf is ‘real’ or not. (Ask them “do you really want to know or shall I tell you after Christmas?” if you think they might be upset with the reality.
- Have the Elf do a mix of cheeky things and kind things, maybe leaving small presents or loving notes for your child.
- Let the kids carry the Elf around, decorate it, draw on it, dress it up, take it apart, whatever they want to do with it. It’s for them, after all.
- Let the kids say bye and create a fun ‘goodbye’ party or event for the Elf
- If they want to keep the Elf after Christmas, let them!
- If questions arise about your child’s friends who have a mean-spy-Elf, say something along the lines of “oh that’s a shame, you receive presents because we love you and enjoy seeing you happy, not because of what you do or don’t do.”
So there’s my take on Elf on the shelf ideas. If you’d like 9 tips on how to help your kids stay peaceful, polite and happy in all the hustle and bustle of Christmas, check out my popular post Keeping Calm at Christmas.