Stop the Madness. Ditch the Elf on the Shelf!

There’s an intruder in your home. He’s been watching your every move, keeping track of your behavior, and diligently reporting back to his boss with an itemized list of everything you do. He’s hiding in plain sight. In fact, he could be watching you this very minute. You can run, but you can’t hide. Wherever you are, he’ll find you. He’s the Elf. The Elf on the Shelf.

In case you’ve been fortunate enough not to encounter this particular holiday demon, The Elf on the Shelf is a book written in 2005 by Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell. It explains that Santa, in an effort to keep track of who’s being naughty and nice, has sent out an army of “scout” elves who hide in your house, keeping track of your every move. Each night, while you sleep, the elves fly back to the North Pole and report on your actions, before flying back to your house to keep up their vigilant watch. Conveniently, the book comes with your very own scout elf whose magic abilities are activated the minute you give him a name. Children of America: don’t name your elves!

Elf on the Shelf has become a huge phenomenon. Parents everywhere have embraced this tradition with gusto, posing their children’s elves in elaborate tableaux each morning to show that they’ve been up to their mischief in the night. In fact, Elf on the Shelf now has it’s very own balloon in New York City’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

But this is madness! Look, if you don’t know how to raise polite, well-behaved children, a creepy toy elf isn’t going to suddenly change that. I understand the temptation to turn Santa into a bearded, red-clad watchdog. Kids get pretty wacky around Christmastime. The ability to say, “be good, or Santa won’t bring you any presents!” is the ultimate threat. And having those little elves hanging around, as a physical reminder that Santa knows all, just seals the deal. No presents?! I’ll be good! I swear! Parents everywhere give each other a collective high five. But seriously, everybody.  Are you really going to follow through on that threat?

As a parent trying to raise well-mannered children who follow the rules and understand their boundaries, one of the worst things you can do is not follow through. If your child throws a ball in the house and throwing balls in the house isn’t allowed, you’re probably going to say something like, “if you throw that ball in the house one more time I’m going to take away the ball.” And if the ball gets thrown, the ball gets taken. Simple.

So, if your kid misbehaves at Christmastime, and the Elf on the Shelf — the old tattletale — delivers that news to “Santa,” is “Santa” actually going to pull the trigger? Will there be no presents under the tree come Christmas morning? Only coal in the stocking? All because little Johnny pulled his sister’s ponytail once too often, or little Susie forgot she wasn’t supposed to play with Mommy’s makeup? That sounds very unlikely to me. Instead, every time something like that happens, Mom or Dad is going to point to the Elf and say, “Don’t forget, Santa’s watching!” which is to say: there are no consequences for your actions.

Christmas presents aren’t a reward for good behavior. Not if you’re doing it right, anyway. They’re gifts given freely, that teach children — in giving and graciously receiving — the joy of making others happy. And Santa (whose purpose in our lives I wrote about at length here) embodies that joy, that happiness, and that love. Not the mean, vindictive, consequence of unruly behavior.

So, here’s a radical notion: parents, don’t make Santa into the bad guy. Don’t invite his evil minions into your home. Instead, seize the opportunity to teach your children the joy of giving, and bask in that same joy yourself as you put your child’s presents under the tree. Whether your children are naughty or nice is an issue you must tackle all year long. It’s not the point of Christmas. Stop the madness. Ditch the elf.