The Elf on the Shelf, that wide-eyed character all dressed in red who comes with his own storybook about how he manages naughty and nice lists and reports to Santa nightly, is still a source of debate among parents 10 years after debuting in stores. Is he a fun and creative addition to the holidays and social media, or a burdensome way for parents to manipulate kids into behaving well?
“I get just as excited to break him out of the attic box on Thanksgiving night as the kids do to see him the next morning,” Tennille Knoop, a Utica, N.Y., mom of three, tells Yahoo Parenting. “There’s something special about seeing the kids’ eyes light up when they find him, and it helps to have a little ‘The elf is watching you’ during the abundance of Christmas excitement in the house.”
Emma Narvaez, a mom of two in Whittier, Calif., disagrees. “I feel like [the elf is] the symbol of Pinterest taking over our lives,” she tells Yahoo Parenting, referring to the way lots of parents share their intricate elf posing on social media. Andrew Wright, a father of two in Chapel Hill, N.C., echoes her sentiment, telling Yahoo Parenting, “Just what parents need: another daily task during the busiest month of the year. The elf will never grace our shelf.”
Celebrity moms like Busy Philipps and Sarah Michelle Gellar are also fans of the elf, with Philipps posting the photo below on Instagram Wednesday, writing, “Last night, the elves did some gardening on our dining room table! They planted jelly beans and grew candy canes! The elves find gardening super relaxing and also the secret to a long life…” Meanwhile, Gellar has named her elves Snowflake and Red, and she chronicles their adventures on Instagram as well.
Photo: Busy Philipps/Instagram
Kristin J. Carothers, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, tells Yahoo Parenting that the sharing aspect of the elf can be fun, but some parents “engage in their own attention-seeking behavior and use it for likes that are not about the kids.” Still, she notes that getting the whole family involved in an activity can be a very positive thing. And Philipps and Gellar, as well as many other parents on social media, genuinely seem to have fun with their elves. Knoop does too — and she doesn’t mind the extra task. “Are there times I jump out of bed annoyed because I forgot to move the elf? Yes,” she says. “But watching my kids hunt for it in the morning and seeing them yell to one another when they find him makes it worth it.”
The magical element of the elf is one way he appeals to families, but some parents also tell kids that the elf reports back to Santa if they’re naughty. Carothers isn’t a fan of the idea that the elf is looking for misbehavior. She says that it’s important to frame this tradition in a positive way. “Parents can decrease misbehavior by focusing on positive behavior,” she notes, recommending that parents who use the elf put their attention on the “nice” aspect and have him “catch” the children in daily acts of kindness to be celebrated at dinnertime or bedtime. “The idea is to encourage them to grow up to be pro-social adults who don’t just avoid being naughty but actually do nice things for others.”
Reframing the elf’s story is one way parents can make the tradition work for their own families. Jennifer Luddy, a mom of two in Brick, N.J., tells Yahoo Parenting she doesn’t have an elf for her daughters: “I don’t love the fact that the end result of being good in front of the elf is that you get presents — that’s not what the holidays are all about.” In fact, Elf on the Shelf alternatives, like the Kindness Elves — who put out notes each day to recognize the kind acts they’ve witnessed by the kids in the house, or to suggest new ways to help others — are a reaction to opinions like Luddy’s, and to the idea that the Elf on the Shelf has a negative, Big Brother-like presence.
Carothers thinks that if parents use the Elf on the Shelf — or any creature of their choosing — to reinforce positive behavior, then that’s a win. “He can be a cue to remind parents to look out for actions they can praise,” she says. “The bottom line is that it all depends on framing and context — and taking two minutes to think of three specific, nice things your children did each day can go a long way during the holidays or any time of year.”
Top photo: peapodsquadmom/Flickr