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.
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.