I’m not opposed to lying to very young children. In fact, my family considers it one of the finer points of good parenting. The art of storytelling, when done appropriately, can soften a harsh reality and bring it into an easy-to-swallow, child-sized bite. In “6 Lies You Should Tell Your Kids” I shared a few of our family secrets for doing just that. The Elf on the Shelf, however, is a Christmas tale with a dark side that could produce some unintended character flaws that could show up later as adults. Adults, no doubt, that will be living in a very different world.
Before you dismiss the whole idea as harmless fun, it’s important to understand two basic truths that Christmas traditions, as with all family traditions, are vitally important to children. You are always teaching your child–intentionally, or unintentionally.
The Elf on the Shelf is a cheap looking stuffed doll that looks like it came from a dollar store in China. The elf itself is not what has made it a multi-million dollar success. It’s the story behind it.
That’s where we get into some real life issues.
This elf is placed somewhere in the house to observe the children’s behavior. Apparently, this generation’s Santa can’t really see who’s naughty and nice. He needs surveillance elves. The elf is adopted into a family or classroom, given a name and perched somewhere to observe the children’s behavior. Then he receives his magic. Each night the little snitch flies back to the North Pole to let Santa know if the kid being watching is good or bad.
There are two rules, one for the elf and one for the kid: The elf cannot be touched. If he is, he loses his magic and can’t fly back to the North Pole (hence, no Christmas for the kid, and they’re stuck with just the elf). The elf’s rule is that it can’t say anything– only watch and listen carefully. Not a problem for a stuffed doll, even a cheesy one.
This type of tradition fits this generation of parents well. We all know the NSA is listening in, and it produces some great Instagram shots. By the looks of what a simple #elfonshelf search will uncover, naughty and nice parents are having as much fun with it, if not more than their kids.
So what could go wrong with an Elf on the Shelf?
Professors Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin published an article at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which at first glance, can be easily dismissed as conspiracy garbage. However, for thoughtful parents and grandparents it deserves some careful consideration.
“The gaze of the elf on the child’s real world (as opposed to play world) resonates with the purpose of the panopticon, based on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century design for a model prison (a central tower in a circular structure, surrounded by cells). Backlighting in the central tower made it impossible for prisoners to discern whether or not they were being watched. Michel Foucault (1979) saw the panopticon as a perfect symbol of modern surveillance societies: a metaphor for discipline operating through a variety of social and institutional apparatuses that leave the individual on guard, never certain if she is actually being watched, but knowing structures are in place to monitor her movements at all times.”
True confession: I fed into my children’s fear that I could see everything they did– behind me, and even through walls. The truth is, they were too young to figure out that sound travels. We also taught them that we have a God, a heavenly Father, that does see everything we do.
There is a big difference between the elf, God and mama.
The difference is relational. As parents, we want heart transformation–not just behavior modification. We teach them through relationships, bonding and love. We want children capable of self-government, because they are wired that way from the inside–not out of fear of being watched and judged.
Speaking from my own Christian perspective, the same is true for our relationship with God. He is not just a cosmic cop for whom we must perform. Rather, He forgives our actions and sees our hearts.
For the Lord does not see as man sees;[a] for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 New King James Version (NKJV)
Children need to know that their worth does not depend on their actions. This game that has entered their real world enforces the acceptance of constant behavior modification through perceived surveillance.
Why do you suppose toy commercials show a parent and child playing with the toy for sale? Because what a child wants more than a toy is to have a parent play too — a toy that will give them time with their parents is the toy they will beg for.
“Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.”
Children young enough to buy into the Elf on the Shelf have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality at any given time. They live in a world that is still full of all kinds of wonders. Games and imagination are powerful influences in this time of life. If you want to add an extra dash of power then make it a game that is played with mom and dad.
This is what makes Elf on the Shelf fun for parents as well. It is a game they are playing with their children, and getting them to behave all at the same time. Who can argue with that? How can that do anything but bring happy childhood memories?
The answer is simple. The game is brought into their real world. Many children will believe it as truth, and wrap themselves in it.
The adults have to make it clear, that this is in fact a game of pretend and the children help make up the rules. But then, that breaks the power of the elf over them…
A child’s imagination and trust are powerful elements that shape the adult he or she will one day become.
“Under normal circumstances, children’s behaviour (i.e., what is “naughty” and what is “nice”) is situated in social contexts and mediated by human beings (peers, parents, and teachers) where the child conceptualizes actions and emotions in relation to other people and how they feel.
Through play, children become aware about others’ perspectives: in other words, they cultivate understandings about social relationships. The Elf on the Shelf essentially teaches the child to accept an external form of non-familial surveillance in the home when the elf becomes the source of power and judgment, based on a set of rules attributable to Santa Claus. Children potentially cater to The Elf on the Shelf as the “other,” rather than engaging in and honing understandings of social relationships with peers, parents, teachers and “real life” others.”
It can’t be stressed enough that children are always learning–whether or not you think you’re teaching. The question is what are you teaching them?
Just as this new generation has never known life without iPads, FaceTime or surveillance cameras on street corners, they will never know they have a right to privacy unless the adults in their lives tell them, defend it and fight for it.
How will this generation know that the eye of power and judgment peeking into their private lives is not a gift from Santa, or Uncle Sam?