The Elf on the Shelf is a cute idea: a fun little character that builds the excitement in the lead-up to Christmas. But is it a fun Christmas gimmick, or perhaps something not-quite-nice at all?
Christmas…no longer a simple celebration with family to praise the birth of Jesus. Now it’s a commercial juggernaut, with Santa Claus as the face of Christmas and a stack of gift-wrapped presents under a fir tree as the reward for a year of good behaviour. And The Elf on the Shelf is fast becoming a global tradition in the month leading up to Christmas. We’re looking into how this came to be and if it’s something we’re going to take on with our own kids.
What is The Elf on the Shelf?
The Elf on the Shelf is a storybook, which comes with a toy elf. The book tells the story of Santa’s Scout Elves, who visit homes and watch over the children, then report back to Santa about who is being naughty and who is being nice. The toy elf (thanks to the help of mums and dads) appears each morning between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, always in a different spot and disappears while the kiddos are sleeping, to report back to the North Pole.
Children must beware… “There’s only one rule that you have to follow, so I will come back and be here tomorrow: Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.” On Christmas Eve, the elf appears for the last time, before heading back to the North Pole until next Christmas.
The idea for Elf on the Shelf came to Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell as they sat drinking cups of tea, way back in 2004. They then spent the next three years, along with Chanda’s twin sister Christa, developing the concept and promoting the self-published book.
Fast forward to 2018 and The Elf on the Shelf franchise is MASSIVE. More than 11 million elves have been sold worldwide and they’ve extended the product range to include elf pets, clothing and an animated movie. The Elf on the Shelf even appears in the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.
Go on, embrace a fun Christmas tradition
There’s the school of thought that says anything fun can’t be bad… especially at Christmas. This goes for The Elf on the Shelf, too. Lots of families (11 million of them, it seems) think that the tradition of the elf appearing for the month leading up to Christmas is charming and sweet. The idea is that the kids are encouraged to behave themselves in the lead-up to Christmas, so that the elf will report their good behaviour to the big man each night.
Some families stick to the bare minimum, with the elf simply appearing in a different location every morning in the lead-up to the big day. Others go nuts, with elaborate scenarios each day involving the likes of surfing elves, an elf cooking a Christmas turkey, or our favourite so far, an elf frozen into a block of ice by Queen Elsa of Arendelle. Pinterest is full of fun, creative ideas for ways to pose your elves each day, plus The Elf on the Shelf website also has lots of lovely suggestions. You can even buy custom-made elf-ccessories on Etsy!
Bah humbug! A marketing ploy that brainwashes kids
There are some who criticise The Elf on the Shelf as a marketing ploy designed to bully kids into thinking that good behaviour = gifts. When you think about it like that, it’s a fair point.
David Kyle Johnson writes for Psychology Today that mechanisms like The Elf on the Shelf are perpetuating the ‘Santa lie’, or the idea that we’re teaching our kids to believe in something that is patently false. He maintains that deliberately tricking our kids and undermining their trust in us – when they find out we’ve been misleading them – is not healthy and may lead children to question other things we teach them (he uses God as the prime example).
He also argues that there’s a big difference between a small reward for spontaneous positive behaviour and stopping bad behaviour with the promise of a future reward. Johnson maintains that children should be learning the skill of self-control and doing the right thing ‘just because’ and that a concept like The Elf on the Shelf is teaching the opposite: “That how they behave should be dictated by the rewards they receive”.
So, the conclusion we’re drawing after observing both sides of the debate is that it is up to the individual. We love the idea of Christmas traditions that build the excitement up to the main event. And, let’s be honest, every so often it’s quite handy to use the bargaining power of the elf to get the kids to do as they’re told. But on the flip side, tricking our kids into believing something that is false and the idea that poor behaviour can be discouraged with rewards, rather than with the idea that they should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
And so the parenting struggle continues…