Elf on the Shelf: The Phenomenon

Like most Elf on the Shelf adoptive parents, Lisa Robinson loves the way her children’s eyes light up at the sight of their elf. However, she worried it could become “selfish on the shelf” and teach kids to think only of themselves.

Tips for positive, playful elf visits

  • “Keep it fun and encouraging, as opposed to negative, punitive or critical,” says child psychologist Jonathon Pochyly. Have the elf set good examples for kids to emulate.
  • Don’t connect the elf to behavior; just pose it as a North Pole visitor, says parenting expert Amy McCready.
  • “Set two reminders on your phone,” recommends mom Tess McGillicuddy. One reminding you to move the elf, the second checking if you actually did move the elf.

“Seems to me like bribery and manipulation,” Robinson says. “If I’m good, I’ll get gifts, as opposed to being good because it makes the world better.”

After Thanksgiving, Facebook feeds and Pinterest pages light up with endless elf antics, ranging from silly and sweet to downright mischievous. With more than 8 million copies sold since its inception in 2005, The Elf on the Shelf has become a Christmas phenomenon.

Using this tiny scout to encourage good behavior can be tempting for parents in the busy holiday season. But let’s think about how we would feel knowing someone was monitoring our every move. Is it the best idea to tie presents to good behavior, or should we encourage kids to be good for goodness’ sake?

Children dashing to discover their elf’s latest hiding spot is a delight. So how do we adopt this holiday tradition, yet use it to spread the most cheer?

Behind the phenomenon

According to the book, The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, by Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell, the scout elf’s job is to watch and report all that kids do. He tells “the Boss” if they’ve been good or bad.

“The idea of Santa Claus knowing what kids are doing is not new,” says Bell, who adds that her family’s company works directly for Santa Claus and considers it a huge honor to be a special part of other families’ Christmases.

“It’s not about the presents you’re going to get,” Bell says. “It’s more about having a friend from the North Pole in your home. It’s the magic of the moments you wouldn’t otherwise have.”

What child isn’t enchanted by finding their special pal rappelling from the chandelier or taking a marshmallow bath?

“We’ve taken the elf to a new level, making it like an Advent fest,” says Patti Staley, a mom of two in Batavia. Their elf, Candy, puts chocolate coins or stickers in the children’s stockings after they’ve cleaned their rooms or completed their homework without complaining.

On days the kids argue a lot, their stockings are bare. Instead Candy plays a trick on them, like holding their favorite toy hostage so they can’t play with it for the day. The Staley children love their elf so much that they get sad on Christmas Eve knowing Candy is leaving.

“The Elf on the Shelf is wonderful if you’re using it to build imagination,” says Amy McCready, author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic- A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World. “We run into problems when we use the elf to manipulate children’s behavior.” It can create anxiety; kids might worry if their behavior is good enough.

“Depending on how it’s used, it can undermine the joy,” McCready says. She recommends parents shelf the book, not the elf, and only use the visitor for fun.

“The idea of telling the kids the elf is watching, so be good for Santa seems counterproductive,” says Sarah Jehl, a mom of three in Chicago. “It ruins what I’ve been trying to do for the whole year, which is teach them to act respectful, kind and well-behaved because that’s what you should do.”

The Jehl family does not have an elf.

“I tell them there’s no nice or naughty list, so why the elf?” says Jehl. “I think Santa understands that kids make mistakes. He would appreciate if all people are kind and respectful and try their hardest to be good year-round.”

Dr. Jonathan Pochyly, pediatric psychologist at Ann& Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, says parents need reliable, long-term strategies for maintaining good behavior year-round.

“I see the value of creating lasting holiday memories,” he says. “But using the elf as a way to promote better behavior can be problematic. It’s best to clearly identify problem behavior, give straightforward feedback with appropriate consequences and follow through effectively.”

The elf is watching

Families truly seem to adore their elves. Similar to how they would with a pet, they share pictures, names and stories about their elves. Many parents creatively conspire their elf’s next move together. But sometimes the shenanigans get out of hand.

“I don’t understand the elves that are naughty at all,” Jehl says. “The elf that is here watching throws flour or unfolds the clothes? I would be livid if my kids did that.”

The best part about this tradition is that you can make it your own.

“We do what fits our lives and what’s good for our kids,” says Amy Wonderling, a Naperville mom of one. “I try not to feel too much pressure.”

Parents can be guilty of threatening no toys for naughty children. But are you really going to withhold Christmas presents or give your child coal?

“They would think, I must be a bad person,” Robinson says. “No, you’re 7. You’re working out how to be nice to your brother. You’re learning the concept that the world is more than me and that’s normal development.”

If you’re going to invite an elf into your home, do it to increase Christmas cheer. “Kids grow up too fast,” Bell says. “We hope the elf is something that can keep them young at heart.”

Cortney Fries
Cortney Fries
An award-winning travel journalist, Cortney Fries (pronounced "freeze") has been writing about family travel for over a decade. She knows that parents planning trips are looking for all members to have fun and make lasting memories. Cortney believes that you should definitely try anything that makes you slightly nervous.
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