Why I Will Never Buy Elf on the Shelf

The Elf on the Shelf is more than just an annoyance – it also promotes a lot of terrible values. Here’s why I will never buy Elf on the Shelf. 

Why I Will Never Buy Elf on the Shelf (Photo: Picture of the Elf on the Shelf with a No Sign Through It)

Wandering the bookstore in December, looking for gifts, I really hope that my four-year-old doesn’t notice – or at least doesn’t care about – the Elf on the Shelf prominently displayed by the check-out counter. While I know it’s a beloved tradition in many families, I kind of hate the thing. Besides its aesthetics, it stands for a bunch of values that are the opposite of what I want to teach my kids.

For those who have had the good fortune of avoiding the Elf on the Shelf, it’s stuffed elf that comes with a book. The main idea is that the Elf is a spy for Santa who watches the kids all day and reports back every night. Each morning, the parent puts the Elf in a different place, some of which involve increasingly complicated scenarios. While I normally love toys that come with books, the only thing the Elf on the Shelf is good for is these hilarious photos that reveal the Elf in some very compromised situations.

Here’s why I will never buy the Elf on the Shelf:

It turns December into one long waiting period for presents.

While this is somewhat inevitable for kids, the very presence of the Elf as Santa’s substitute reinforces it every morning. Instead, I want to share the religious idea of Advent with Sprout, where the pre-Christmas season is about serving others as you wait for a holy and magical event. (Jesus being born, not Santa.)

To communicate this message, we’re going to have an Advent calendar with our kids. We have more than 20 ideas that are either family activities (cutting down the tree) or provide some type of service to others (helping with our church’s mitten drive, buying a gift for charity).

It reinforces the idea that “good” girls and boys get toys while “bad” ones don’t.

Although it seems like a harmless way to get kids to behave, the message that “good” kids get toys and “bad” ones don’t. can be pretty toxic. Eventually, kids will find out that their parents are Santa. While some may feel betrayed that their parents were manipulating them, many may internalize the message that if they’re “good,” they’ll get rewarded with material things. This attitude can result in entitled kids that expect they can get what they want if only they do the “right” things.

This message also implies that kids who don’t have as many gifts (or didn’t receive any at all) are “bad.” It’s the kid version of the Just World Fallacy, which says if someone is poor or has bad things happen to them, they did something to deserve it. Poor kids face enough embarrassment when everyone is talking about what they received at Christmas and they have nothing to show off. Often, adults already label kids as “bad” whether they did anything to earn that label or not. We don’t need to add to their burden by equating – even unintentionally – not receiving a wealth of gifts with naughty behavior.

It makes your home into a surveillance state.

Honestly, the Elf on the Shelf is freaking creepy. Besides its Uncanny Valley look, it’s also a little spy in your house. It gives the “he knows when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake” aspect of Santa a physical representation.

Our lives are under enough surveillance. We don’t need little pretend dolls to follow our children’s every move, even if it’s just imaginary. And I’m not the only one who thinks this – a Canadian digital technology professor just published a paper entitled Who’s the Boss? saying it teaches “young people to blindly accept panoptic surveillance.” That’s a bit over the top, but the Elf still weirds me out.

From a parenting point of view, it’s another way society demonstrates that it doesn’t trust children. It says (in a lighthearted way) that children need to be watched at all times to ensure obedience.

Before you respond, “Why are you making such a big deal about this? It’s just a toy,” I ask you to take a good, hard look at your Elf on the Shelf’s beady little eyes and tell me that you entirely trust him. Yeah, I didn’t think so. Elves are traditionally dangerous mischief-makers that people didn’t want in their homes. Perhaps we should go back to that perspective.

Instead of the Elf, you can try these activities to teach your kids to serve others at Christmas. Be sure to follow us on Facebook!  

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12 thoughts on “Why I Will Never Buy Elf on the Shelf

  1. Yes! Thank you! I hate that freaking little thing. I have one that was sold with a perfume about 50-60 years ago, and it always hung on my grandma’s tree. He looks exactly like all the newer ones, and I keep it out, year round, because I like him and he has sentimental value. But he’s not mobile. I have a hard enough time with the Santa story, I can’t do another even more blatant lie. My kids do ask why we don’t have one (all their friends do) and I kind of stumble around it. But I don’t like the whole idea, or what it stands for.

  2. I recall the lead up to Christmas as a very solemn time when I was in grade school. There were all kinds of lessons and ceremonies at my Catholic school/church that I took very seriously. We’d watch our cousin on TV saying Mass in Bethlehem on Christmas eve then go to midnight Mass which was packed with people suffocating in their winter coats. We’d go back home, open a present, eat a cookie, and go off to bed. (Then Mom and Dad would somehow find the energy to bring out Santa’s gifts.)

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  5. I have to be totally honest, I absolutely despise these kinds of posts. The “I hate that stupid elf and here’s why” blog posts that run rampant this time of year. They always come off as “I’m trying to make myself feel better about not having one so I’m going to blame xyz.” This is a child’s toy and it does not “promote terrible values.” If you are letting toys dictate the values that are taught in your home, you have a much larger problem on your hands.

    • Honestly, I’m not usually a big fan of negative posts either. If you look around, the vast, vast majority of my posts are positive and solution-oriented, even if they’re about hard topics like racism or inequality. But I focused on the Elf in particular because it’s both a symbol of and a way of reinforcing a lot of toxic cultural narratives. The physical toy I don’t have an issue beyond simple aesthetics. Obviously that’s in the eye of the beholder! But the story that comes with the Elf is wrapped up in messaging that surrounds us. In fact, we take this messaging around Christmas that reinforces materialism and societal inequality for granted. I could have also talked about why I dislike the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (it has the same messages), but that’s not nearly as big of a cultural influence these days. To me, those messages and how this toy is teaching them to our children is a big problem.

      As for “letting toys dictate the values that are taught in your home,” toys and media teach our kids values whether we actively choose for them to or not. The toys we buy for them, the TV shows we let them watch, and the books we read to them all communicate viewpoints to our children about the world. They can be viewpoints that reinforce values we want to teach or not. While I know I can’t shield my kids from everything, I can choose what comes into my house. (Especially while my kids are little – they’re only 20 months and four years old.) Knowing that, I choose toys and media that teach kindness, encourage exploration, and help them appreciate beauty and simplicity. Along those lines, we don’t buy them toy guns or things with characters who solve problems with violence. I see the Elf – and especially the story that accompanies the Elf – along the same lines.

    • I totally agree, and I mean it’s not like it’s actually watching you, so like what’s the problem with it? It makes your kids happy and they get to Serb around the house for it.

      • Again, it’s not the Elf itself I have a problem with so much as the story behind it. I think we communicate a lot to our kids about our values through the stories we tell them. There’s some social science evidence that stories are more effective at passing along messages than just saying them outright. If a story we tell our kids focuses on the fact that you should be good because someone is watching and will give you stuff, that has a lot of messages about materialism and ethics embedded in it.

        As for the “makes your kids happy,” we have a ton of Christmas traditions that make our kids happy. In particular, my son has a singing, dancing Christmas tree that drives us up the wall. But he loves it so much that we let him play with it all December!

  6. I agree. My Sister in law loves the elf on the shelf and I’ve always felt it wasn’t the best tradition. When My husband and I started having kids both she and my mother in law were surprised that we didn’t want to get one for the boys, and also how much we downplay Santa. My mother in law has come around to my way with the elf on the shelf in the last year or so. She started to realize that the tradition didn’t encourage great values.
    I think it’s something you don’t want to overplay if you do it. A fun daily scavenger hunt isn’t a bad thing, but the focus on gifts and watchfulness for bad behavior is. I want my kids to prioritize advent, not commercialization and stuff.

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