Christmas, advent, & my beef with the Elf on The Shelf


Yesterday was the first of advent, and so began what is arguably my favorite time of year.  The little ones saw a chocolate advent calendar at the store a few weeks ago, so this year that was added to the activity calendar and the Jesse Tree.  I also just got a sweet little e-book that tells a part of the Christmas story every day, along with a corresponding ornament craft.   And that’s enough! 🙂

Yesterday, we went to the Dollar Tree to look for Christmasy stuff (and we actually walked there, for the first time ever, despite having lived just a mile away for FIVE years).  Today, we’ll make paper snowflakes; and over the course of the next few weeks there will be Christmas parties, and cookie-making, and present-wrapping, and gingerbread houses, and movie watching and ornament crafting … all sorts of Norman Rockwell holiday goodness.

What won’t be part of our pre-Christmas festivities?  This:


If you’re not familiar with it, The Elf on The Shelf is a Christmas book and doll that tell the story of this elf (who kids can name and register online) who watches them every day and then reports back to Santa at night.  The next day, he is hidden by the parent  shows back up in your house in a new spot, all ready for more “Naughty or Nice” surveillence.  From its product page on Amazon:

Year after year, children and adults alike are baffled by the mystery of how Santa really knows who’s been naughty or nice. After much urging by the elves and Mrs. Claus, Santa has allowed his biggest secret to be revealed in The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition.

Where to start.

For those reading this who are about to get all upset with me (“What?!  What’s wrong with The Elf on a Shelf?  We LOVE the Elf on the Shelf!  Our kids love it.  It’s fun!  It’s harmless!”) I’d just ask that you hear me out.  Also, from what I can tell, those who use and love this elf generally seem to fall into two camps: Those who just use it as a fun and lighthearted little toy, a yearly tradition of hide-and-seek-Elf with the kids; and those who employ it as a behavior modification tool, a way to try to encourage improvement in their children’s actions/attitudes/behaviors, at least for the month of the December.    I’m really speaking to the latter.

Reading through reviews on Amazon, and comments on Facebook, message boards, and the like, the theme is the same.

It really encourages good behavior!

My kids are so well-behaved in the days leading to Christmas now!

They’re so afraid of doing something wrong and having it reported to Santa!

My question is this:  Do you really want your kids to behave a certain way because they’re afraid that a creepy little elf is going to be watching them and reporting to Santa?  What happens in January when the elf gets packed away?

For that matter, do you want them to behave a certain way so that they get a gold star on a sticker chart, or a lollipop at the checkout line?

I know I don’t.

Behaving a certain way for an external reward (or fear of punishment) is temporary, at best.  It’s also not sincere, but just on the surface… no more than a means to an end.  Where is the meaning in that?  If you gave me $100 and told me to hold the door for a stranger, I would.  But how much more would it mean – for me and the stranger – if I did it for free, simply because it’s a nice thing to do?  Bribing and threatening our kids to “behave” is like assuming that they wouldn’t do so otherwise.  It’s belittling them, and taking away their own power to do what THEY feel is right… not for a reward, not because of a fear of punishment, but because they want to.  If they’re not given that chance, how can they show us who they really are?

I want my kids to behave the way they behave because they want to, because they are internally driven to do so, not because they’ll get a lump of coal if they don’t.

Liked it? Take a second to support jen on Patreon!


Filed under Uncategorized

44 Responses to Christmas, advent, & my beef with the Elf on The Shelf

  1. We got “Elf on the Shelf” from my aunt this year for my 4 kids. I read them the story, we named our Elf “Randal” and he hides in a new place every day. I am the former, however. I love hiding it and the kids waking up all excited to see where Randall has gone/hidden. I never use any statements like “Randall is watching” or “Randall’s going to tell Santa about this…” I think that’s horrible way to get your kids to “behave” when actually children are always behaving (by definition), and as you said, its a terribl control tactic (and I don’t want to control my children). We use ours for fun. (Also, have you read any books by William Glasser or Robert Wubbolding? They practice/teach/counsel using Choice Theory/Reality Therapy and whenever I read your posts, they are really in line with Dr. Glassers ideas).

  2. Summer

    I really don’t like that elf either. I don’t even like the whole concept of Santa Claus rewarding “nice” kids and punishing the “naughty” ones. We don’t play the song “here comes Santa” in our house because it’s freaky – just like this elf. “He sees you when you’re sleeping….he knows when you’re awake” What a way to scare the crap out of kids and make them feel horrible about themselves. And what does that have to do with the meaning of Christmas in the first place. It’s really awful – IMO.

  3. I have a serious beef with that thing too. It’s creepy as can be, and I don’t like the idea of using it for behavior modification. I haven’t shared this opinion with anyone yet, though, because I’m really tired of everyone being mad at me lately because of my opposition to spanking, time-outs, etc. It’s getting exhausting.

  4. julie strasser

    so funny. i just read the part of your post “what do you do in january when you pack the little elf away?” to my eldest (17). he said “leave it out all year”:). what’s scary is there might could possibly be folks who will…..

    • jen

      That kind of reminds me of parents who will leave a belt or switch lying around to serve as a threat/reminder… 🙁

      • Eek, that’s awful. One of my piano students was here the other night and she was kind of dawdling, not wanting to leave my house. She likes to play with my son after her lesson while her brother takes his lesson, but her brother didn’t come this time so she didn’t get a chance. Her father, with a smile on his face, threatened her by starting to take off his belt, and she rushed to the door. He said something in a mocking tone, mimicking what she would say: “Oh daddy, not the belt” or something like that. I was so flabbergasted I didn’t even know what to say. I wish I’d told him off for threatening his child with violence in my home.

  5. Jen

    We use elf for the hiding playing games etc, very lightly my daughter may say oops I better get to bed so elf doesn’t say I didn’t listen. I don’t encourage it. But I will say we moved from Illinois to Calif after losing everything and starting over. I couldn’t bring much, but I’ll tell ya when she saw her elf on Dec 1st she said that it reminds her of home and was so happy. I think that it obviously would be silly to use Elf for a month as behavior mod then what? You’re right. Stars on a board etc are same concept as far as I’m concerned. Your children should respect you and listen irregardless of what reward you give them. The Elf is meant to bring happiness to the child and excitement as is Santa. No Elf or gold star has ever been used in my home for discipline. They either behave or they get punished.

    • jen

      Have you ever read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards? I believe, as he does, that punishment and rewards are really two sides of the same coin. We don’t use either one,

  6. awwww, I really wanna get an Elf on The Shelf, I think it will be fun. I would be int he first category though, just using it for fun and as another memorable Christmas tradition for my kids. I think they would really enjoy trying to find the Elf each day 🙂

    • jen

      Yeah, I wanted to be sure that I included it in the post instead of lumping everyone into one category… I think there’s a HUGE difference between using it one way over the other. 🙂

  7. Jane

    Love your post. I also love your darling Advent garland. where did you get it? So much more practical than those silly ones at the stores. Please post. 🙂

  8. We don’t lie to the kids about Santa or who brought the presents… I’d love to get the Elf on the Shelf though as a fun thing to do even though we all know that Santa isn’t a real person but only a fun story.

  9. I am getting Elf for the girls, but mainly so I can hide him around the house and play with the girls’ imaginations. I am excited to have “elf” paint their noses red, get into the freezer, and generally cause mayhem. I probably won’t even read them the book though because I don’t want them to think that the elf is a spy.
    I hate that parents use this time of year to threaten their kids by withholding presents and turn such a magical time into a power struggle.

    • jen

      Nose painting, freezer adventures, and general mayhem sounds fun. 🙂 And I agree, it’s very sad how many people use the Christmas in a negative way.

  10. Breezy

    THANK YOU for this!
    I was beginning to think I was the only one who found the surveillance tradition horrifying. YUCK!!!

  11. Leigh

    I am very against this “toy.” How creepy is it to think that this elf COMES ALIVE at night to tattle to Santa on my little girl’s behavior?! That’s just wrong. If I were 2 years old and told that this elf comes alive at night when I’m asleep, I’d never sleep again.

  12. Maria

    Isn’t Christianity based on the threat of behaving as God commands or else suffer eternal damnation??? Same concept.

    • jen

      Some Christians believe that, yes. I do not. 🙂 I believe in the FREEDOM in Christ…. not in behaving a certain way for fear of going to hell.

      • Linda

        When I attended a secular college, learning about comparative religions…He said, Most religions are based in fear – Christianity is not. IF it were, it would be just another religion. I was not a Christian at the time, but that profoundly marked my belief system.

      • Mary

        Thank you for saying that, Jen. I was raised in a denomination of Christianity that does not espouse the idea of sin=damnation at all. In fact, in the churches I’ve attended for 38 years — I’ve moved to different cities — I’ve never heard that kind of fear-based preaching.

  13. Grandma Nina

    My heart broke when I saw a frazzled mom take out her cell phone in a parking lot and announce to her little boy that she was going to call Santa and tell him to give her son’s toys to a good little boy. We always made sure that our girls knew that Santa was pretend, and taught them the story of St. Nicholas, but the emphasis was always on Jesus, not on how much stuff they could get under the tree. I see no problem with the elf when parents keep it a fun game of hide and seek, but our kids don’t need any more negative pressure in their lives!

  14. Is that what it’s all about? I confess I’ve just been a bit bemused about what everyone was talking about, but that does sound creepy. We don’t do the whole “naughty or nice” thing here – Santa loves all children, regardless, and we don’t have to do anything to earn that love.

  15. I’ve actually never heard of elf on the shelf. Guess I’ve been living in a box. Lol! I agree with your views on bribing kids to behave. Very well put. It drives me nuts when adults ask my kids what they want from Santa and then follow it up with the have you been good this year question.

    On a side note, we also do a Jesse tree at our house :). Which devotional do you use?

    • jen

      I actually lost the devotional that I originally printed out with it, so we wing it! Thankfully the ornaments remind me what I’m supposed to be talking about. 😉

      • that’s awesome! this is our 3rd year doing the jesse tree. initially, i had this grand plan of doing my own devotionals, but after making the ornaments that first year i was glad we had a print out!

  16. Courtney

    I love this post!!! The elf on the shelf bothers me for the same reasons. I wonder what these parents do for the other 11 months? Their relationships with their children must not be very good if they have to resort to threats about Santa and spying elves I overheard a mom in costco tell her crying young daughter “if you don’t stop crying, I will call Santa and tell him to give all of your gifts away”. The little girl was like “noo!!!!!!!” and sobbing. It broke my heart. I love your analogy about holding the door.
    And I love your comment about the freedom of living in Christ

  17. Michael

    I think it’s just a little weird. We’re stationed in Germany and my daughter goes to German elementary school. Each Christmas season, she gets worried about St. Nicholas and Black Pete, (in local tradition, he’s a dwarf/elf/devil St. Nicholas captured and who takes naughty children away on St. Nicholas’ Eve) and gets completely stressed out when she misbehaves.

  18. martha

    Agree. The elf is bad creepy for behavior modification. And has nothing to do with advent. Unless it could somehow be incorporated into doing good deeds/acts of kindness unseen and without credit, as Jesus taught.
    I have 2 grown daughters now and I discovered early that the quicker they understood and experienced the consequences of their choice of action, the better. (All year long, not just in December!) As a result they learned early how to understand their emotions, problem solve and make decisions best for them. I guess I was just teaching the law of karma! lol! Besides sharing my own values for right living, the best books I had for support were “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen” “Parenting with Love and Logic ” and “Raising a Thinking Child.”
    As a result of growing up this way, my girls were much more emotionally mature than their peers. They were just untouched by the drama that goes on growing up. They could look at it for what it was. And actually be a source of counsel for their friends. Pretty amazing! The household has been a no drama zone since they were toddlers. 🙂 They are now 16 and 20!
    Merry Christmas and Best Wishes!

  19. Amy

    Dear Jen,

    I opened this page prepared to defend myself and found it’s not needed. I agree with you. We enjoy Elf on the Shelf as a fun hide and go seek game, and I cannot imagine using it as behavior modification.

    You will like Glasser’s books. When I first began teaching, my mentor introduced me to him, and his ideas form the basis of how I interact with students–truthfully, how I interact with everyone. As parents, we work to make sure our kids needs are met, and I have extended that to all areas of my life. Everywhere I go, I try to determine what other people need (survival, love, power, freedom, fun) and help them achieve it. That philosophy has brought me tremendous happiness.

    Back to Elf on the Shelf, I purchased one last year, because it looks identical to a couple of little elves my mom had back in the late 1960s. We always pulled them out every year at Christmas time to decorate, and even though no one was hiding them back then, I loved those little elves. So I don’t see it as creepy at all. It’s a reminder of my childhood.

    The song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” never bothered me either. I see Santa akin to God. It comforts me to know that he sees me when I am sleeping and knows when I’m awake, because in my eyes, he is benevolent and full of love.

    As for Eve (and me) believing in Santa Claus, I want my little girl to believe in magic, because I believe in it. I have seen miracles happen, real honest to goodness miracles. Santa is a spirit (or he can be–given the right host) who spreads joy and love. Why wouldn’t I want my daughter to believe in that? I firmly believe that my first 17 years believing in Santa Claus is what opened my heart to become one of the best Santa Clauses to ever walk this Earth. And I am proud of that.

    • jen

      Amy, I love you and your gentle spirit so much! So thankful to have your example in my life. Eve is so very, very lucky to have you as her mom. <3

  20. Linda

    I loved your article, even though we do have an elf on the shelf. The elf is our friendly little guy who visits because he loves our little one. We have modified our story so that he only notices when our little one is doing great things – he visits because he loves our little one. Gabby jumps around because he likes playing this game with our little boy. Our little one suffers from mental illness and to have a friend that comes just because he wants him to be happy and have a fun Christmas is a real gift. We despise the idea of a “jolly ole elf” who does the naughty/nice threat stuff. We get presents to celebrate Jesus’ love for us and Santa brings presents to celebrate God’s love for us all, especially children. Thanks for your posts; they are so enlightening and encouraging.

  21. Carrie

    I am so glad that I’m not the only one who feels this way about elf on the shelf.

  22. Natasha

    I mentioned the Elf on the Shelf to my girls this year after hearing about it from my co-worker. My youngest (5.5) was very emphatic in saying NO, when I asked if Santa should send an elf. The reason? She knew she would be bad at least once and did not want that reported to Santa. She is very honest.

    Therefore, Elf on the Shelf is not coming to our house.

    • jen

      I love that 1) she feels she can be so honest with you, and 2) you respected her wishes. 🙂 And really, aren’t we ALL going to be “bad” at least once between now and Christmas?? 🙂