To Elf, Or Not to Elf?


 Is there anybody in this country who has never heard of the Elf on the Shelf by now?

Certainly, there can’t be a parent alive in 2016 who isn’t aware of this Christmas tradition that has become a multimillion dollar business in recent years for the family who dreamed it up. For any Amish readers I may have, parents are supposed to buy this little guy (and acres of accessories) and tell their kids that he is a spy for Santa. The children aren’t allowed to touch the elf, whose magic comes alive once he is named by the family. But every morning the kids wake up, they will find their elf in a new spot in the house. Proving that he did travel to the North Pole overnight to give a full report. 

Perhaps it is inevitable that once something becomes this ubiquitous (and financially successful), detractors will arise. But I think that the growing opposition to the Elf on the Shelf is about much more than that. Plenty of therapists and mommy bloggers have pointed out multiple downsides to this tradition. 


Children May Be Scared and Creeped Out

  To be sure, many parents create very clever and sweet scenarios with their Elfs and don’t get all Orwellian about the spying issue. I’m a huge believer in family traditions, and I can’t help but think many kids who’ve grown up with this tradition have felt nothing but love and will have nothing but good memories. You can find thousands of photos on Pinterest of very elaborate and fun Elf tableaux. Here is one of those:


At the same time, there are many creepy and bizarre ones. Granted, I have no way of knowing how many of these are created by adults for other adults, but I dare you to Google “creepy Elf on the Shelf” (or “Elf on the Shelf and murder”). Here is just one example:


Experts Say It’s Better To Reward Good Behavior Rather Than Punish Bad

Most child psychologists argue that it’s better to “catch” your child behaving properly, and praise her effusively, then to pounce on her with scolding and punishment the minute she breaks a rule. Depending on how parents employ their Shelf Elf, this can come off as a punitive, even traumatic episode. 



Isn’t It Better for Kids to Have a Creative Experience Themselves?

Another negative that comes up is that the Elf on the Shelf has become yet another example of competitive parenting, where parents spend hours creating unique photo ops for their little elves, and then triumphantly post the results on social media. One might argue it would be better for kids to have a toy they can play with themselves, and opportunities to nurture their own creativity. 



Please understand, I am not trying to shame any parent who has this tradition. I know many who do, and they are creating wonderful memories for their children, as I said. And I really love counting down the days to Christmas in all sorts of creative ways: you can find lots of examples in my book, The Book of New Family Traditions, and I’ve blogged about creative Advent calendars.

All I am advocating here is that parents consider HOW they use their elf, the net result on their kids, and make sure their tradition meshes with their values. 

Now, in the last couple of years, a new tradition has sprung up in opposition to the Elf on the Shelf, something called “Kindness Elves,” which are now catching on in a very big way. One of the earliest proponents is a mother of four in England named Anna who has a terrific blog called The Imagination Tree. She started doing the Kindness Elves with her own kids and blogging about it, and now she is selling elf sets and accessories and mailing them from the UK all over the world. And some Americans have created their own Kindness Elves to sell. 

Anna at Imagination Tree borrowed from the Elf on the Shelf notion that the Kindness Elves are not toys and get re-positioned nightly by parents. But the idea is rather than being watchful spies for Santa, they give suggestions each day of kind things the children might do. 


The last thing I want to do is push people to buy stuff. But I would like to inspire meaningful traditions that embody a family’s values and make great memories for their kids. You can start a similar kindness tradition by using toy figurines you already have or making them– and you can even shift your Elf on the Shelf to this philosophy. Here is a blog with ideas for doing that from Good Housekeeping, and here is another blog by a parent who made the switch. There are more: this post on the Meaningful Mama blog offers tips and photos on turning your Shelf Elf into a Kindness Elf.


Whatever you do, do it with joy! Kindness can be a major part of your holiday this year, with or without elves.