The idea of Elf on the Shelf is based on a 2005 Christmas book The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition. The book plays on children’s magical thinking and tells the story of an Elf who is there to essentially spy and supervise the child’s behavior and later report back to Santa if the child is being “naughty” or “nice.” Talk about the fermenting of paranoia and nightmares. Well-meaning and desperate parents trying to nip bad behavior in the bud are creating more anxiety and less intrinsic motivation towards good deeds. The child learns that he/she is on a deadline to get all the gifts on his list by the end of December IF he/she can act a certain way in front of the new guest in their house.
Even more disturbing, are the rules for the Elf game. The child is to name the Elf and set him up on the shelf. Once this is done, no one can touch the Elf or else the Elf loses his magic and cannot fly to the North Pole to report back to Santa. So, the child becomes responsible for a Christmas surveillance guard for his/her behavior and cannot touch it or play with it or else he loses his gift lifeline from Santa. WOW!
Isn’t it just much easier to teach your child to behave than to concoct such a story? Also, don’t you think that expecting your child to miraculously behave and then blame him for poor behavior in a four -week time frame is just a little cruel? Imagine if your boss asked you to learn a new skill that takes years or days of diligence, consistency, guidance, practice, natural consequences, in a matter of weeks? I don’t know how much you would like this boss. What if this boss stated that management was installing surveillance cameras to watch over your every move, in order for you to earn that end of the year bonus solely based on your output this month WHILE you are learning the new skill without much guidance from management? I wonder how good you would feel as an employee of such a boss.
What do children learn? That they must behave well in front of those in charge of their future. We would like to think that this behavior would generalize to other situations, but the opposite happens. Children learn to sneak or lie about their true feelings when they don’t feel they are being surveilled. This is like when you’re on the turnpike and you are going 85 mph and see a police car up ahead, you slow down back to the speed limit, only to speed up again when the police car is out of sight.
Children also learn that good behavior = gifts. Not that good behavior = person who cares for the well-being of others and the good of humanity. Parents complain that children are ungrateful brats who want, want, want, only to toss the toy after just a few uses while they were begging or tantruming like their life depended on it just a few weeks ago.
There’s also a lack of connection and disrespect that brews in the background. Instead of you, the parent overseeing your child’s behavior, you have anointed a tiny elf thing to do the overseeing of bad behavior. This creates a rift in the relationship and promotes a disrespect from child to parent.
Chucky, the infamously notorious villain doll of the 1990’s was part of the zeitgeist of trust/mistrust and lack of autonomy. Chucky is different from the Elf because his intention is to murder, and the Elf is to get the child the gift but bear with me while I make the correlation. The horror movies were based on a doll who looked like a “cute kid” and took on the soul of a murderer who tried to inhabit another human. The doll was more powerful than the entire family and even got married at some point! There was nothing that the child could do to destroy this doll. The wonderful and not so wonderful thing about anxiety is that is based on imagination, the “what if’s” that life has to offer. So, by telling your child that this Elf has these magical powers, who’s to say that your child’s imagination won’t travel to this type of plot especially when he feels like he has let people down for not following through on good behavior and feels the need to be punished?
I understand you, parents. We want well behaved kids. But this is bigger than just the Elf. This is about reward charts, behavior plans, threats to take away our kid’s most prized possessions. There are other ways to have well-behaved kids. Call me to schedule an appointment so we can find what works for your family. I can be reached at 786-383-4942.
Dr. Eva Benmeleh
I am a licensed clinical child psychologist in Miami . I hope you enjoy the site!
221 West Hallandale Beach Blvd., Suite 202
Hallandale, FL 33009