Hello there,

I don’t know so much about folks in different countries, but here in the US we’ve had “Elf on the Shelf” for a few years.

It’s a cute stuffed elf that you’re supposed to hide around the house, on your mantle or shelf.

This elf then “sees” if the kids in the house behave or not and it “reports” to Santa Claus about your kids so they will get the proper amount of presents.

Really?

Isn’t it bad enough for children to have a vague (or explicit) threat from Santa Claus year round that if they don’t behave they won’t get presents?

Now there’s an elf informant… living in the child’s own house?!

Really?

Maybe I’m “preaching to the choir” with you. But I see troubling issues with this whole concept on many levels.

#1 “Elf on the Shelf” encourages children to be deceitful.

The first problem I have with “Elf on the Shelf” is that it promotes sneakiness in children. I’ve heard stories of thoughtful children putting the elf in a box, turning him around, or covering him up so he can’t “see” them. Rather than inspiring good behavior, Elf on the Shelf inspires “how can I still do what I want and get away with it”.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I don’t think children need to be perfect all the time, but I certainly don’t want to create situations where children think they’re “getting away with something”.

#2 “Elf on the Shelf” focuses children on “getting” rather than “giving”.

“Elf on the Shelf”, as well as any other “behave-or-you-won’t-get-gifts” threat, focuses the child on herself and on the gifts that she is going to get, rather than on what she will give to others.

Most parents want their children, during the holidays AND the rest of the year, to be focused on giving to others, providing for the less fortunate, and imagining what others might like to receive–these cognitive tasks are already a developmental stretch for young children.

So, if you scare a child into thinking “I might not get any Christmas gifts” then you make it less likely that the child will be able to think about giving and being generous to others. We can only be generous when we know that we have enough, it’s easy to share if you have an abundance or if you know that the universe will provide for you. It’s hard to share when you’re scared.

#3 “Elf on the Shelf” decrease children’s motivation.

“Elf on the Shelf” undermines a child’s natural motivation to try hard and do her best. For example, if a child cleans up her room in the hope of getting more presents at Christmas, she’ll be less likely to clean up her room at other times of the year, because there’s no incentive. Why? Because getting an incentive for something lessens the enjoyment of the task itself. Cleaning a bedroom may not be inherently joyful, but even children enjoy being in a clean room.

Once a child is given a reward for something (like cleaning) it robs them the enjoyment that comes from having a clean room or, Heaven forbid!, the enjoyment that comes from cleaning itself. Don’t believe me? That’s okay. There’s an entire branch of psychology that has discovered that rewards almost always undermine a child’s natural motivation, lessen the enjoyment of the task itself, and decrease performance (You can read all about it in Alfie Kohn’s books Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards).


So, I hope that I haven’t offended anyone here. I’m not really a grinch. I love the holidays–the lights, the smells, the time with family, doing traditional activities, creating new traditions, the songs, and the gift giving.

I do believe in supporting children to get what they truly want in life–more connection, joy and love. I don’t believe in the subtle, or overt threats that we tell children about Santa or “Elf on the Shelf” not giving them gifts.

Do you think I’m going overboard with the whole “Elf on the Shelf” thing? Have you found positive ways for using the elf in your own family? I’d love to hear from you.

I will get off my soap box now. Thank you for reading.

May you and your family be filled with warmth, love, and light for the Holidays and every day!
Cecilia Hilkey

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