The Elf on the Shelf Smackdown

Entertainment Events Hacking the Holidays
Image: Mark Baylor via Flickr
Image: Mark Baylor via Flickr

Down with the Elf

by Melissa Ford

I’m aware that I sound like a Grinch, but Christmas does something to people. Normally we don’t encourage materialism, but the weather gets colder and we write out long gift wishlists. Normally we are concerned about gluttony, but Christmas brings out culinary inventions such as eggnog (which has your entire daily ration of sugar in a single 8 ounce cup), gingerbread, and calorie-laden glazed ham. Normally we tell kids not to talk to strangers, but during winter, we encourage children to sit on a strange man’s lap in a shopping mall and cuddle close to him while we snap pictures.

And then there is the The Elf on the Shelf. At all other times of year, we are horrified when we think about things such as governmental surveillance or civil rights violations. But the moment Thanksgiving ends, people whip out this plush toy with its creepy smile whose sole purpose is to spy on you and report back to Santa, a situation that sounds vaguely like PRISM, if by PRISM I mean calling the NSA to give them your email password to make hacking unnecessary.

If we really believe that kids learn from play — and companies such as GoldieBlox are hedging all their bets on that ideology — what are we teaching them with The Elf on the Shelf? That it’s okay to spy if it serves some purpose? That it’s okay for outsiders to judge us? Maybe it’s the Elf’s sinister smile (I’m sorry, but he really creeps me out when he pops up in my Facebook feed!), but I gladly trade this holiday tradition for something that leads my kids toward the type of adults I want them to become. Instead of someone watching them, I ask them to watch out for others, turning their thoughts towards places they can help in the community or with friends.

Fine, that sounded sanctimonious, but, really, the doll is so creepy. He’s like a clown. But worse. He’s dream-haunting worthy.

Years ago, my daughter’s friend wanted her to come over and see her elf. My daughter balked, and finally confided that she found the whole thing creepy. She didn’t want the elf spying on her by the mere fact that she walked into this girl’s house. Maybe that family was fine with the idea of having a narc in their presence, but my daughter was definitely not. And then, a few months ago, we showed the twins Terms and Conditions May Apply. At one point, we paused the movie and my daughter asked why all the adults in the film seemed frustrated by the idea of companies collecting information on us if that fact that they are doing so is in their terms of service. Isn’t that a little like that elf, she asked?

Isn’t it?

I know, building traditions, making the holidays fun, blah blah blah. But really, aren’t the holidays fun enough? And if something more than candy canes and carols needs to be added, does it have to be one more thing that contradicts everything else we try to teach kids about the rest of the year? Down with the elf.

Elves for All My Friends

by James Floyd Kelly

It was three years ago that Fred the Elf showed up at our house. My oldest boy was only three years old at the time and was familiar with Santa and the down-the-chimney-with-toys concept. My youngest was a newborn and couldn’t care less about Santa, let alone a 10″ elf who had a habit of disappearing each night and reappearing every morning. But today, my oldest (age 6) and youngest (age 3) are ultra-competitive as they run downstairs each morning, each looking for Fred’s current hiding spot.

Beyond the game of hide and seek, however, there’s also Fred’s job to consider. He’s there to make sure my boys are behaving and staying on Santa’s “Good List.” Do my wife and I use him occasionally to get some good behavior on a car ride or when guests are over? Absolutely! With two boys, the fights are inevitable — but just a nod at Fred or a brief mention of his name is all it takes to remind them that someone is watching. Sometimes my boys even self-police and remind one another, which is hilarious. For roughly 25 days, we get a little bit better behavior than the other eleven months, and we’ll take it! There are no empty-threats of “No toys for you!” — we don’t use Fred as a threat, but instead ask him to help Mom and Dad and the boys remember that using kind words and kind actions is something that Santa always appreciates.

Some folks don’t like the “I’m watching you” part of the game. My boys see no difference between Fred and Santa — the song clearly states “[Santa] sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. / He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” All Fred has done is help us explain how Santa uses his little agents to assist with the Naughty and Nice Lists.

Some don’t like the commercialism. I’ll agree with that. The Elf on the Shelf has definitely jumped the shark (just as every holiday tradition seems to do these days) with all the spin-offs, but I still believe the original kit (book and elf figure) is a fun little tradition that parents can bring into their home at a minimum cost. Skip the DVDs, games, tree ornaments, and Chia pet (I made that last one up, but you get the idea) and go with the basic kit. Or not.

Young children don’t typically see the world the same way that we adults do… thankfully! Not every household introduces Santa or the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny or any other traditions that have a “magical” element to them, and it’s up to parents to pick and choose what they will and will not introduce to their children. But I don’t think kids grow up to become bitter adults when they begin to have their eyes open and the truth exposed for some of their childhood fantasies. Yes, there might be some short periods of time where reality must set in, but hopefully there were many more good memories created than bad ones.

The Elf on the Shelf is as simple as it gets — one of Santa’s little helpers shows up for a few weeks to observe, possibly play a bit of hide and seek, and then return to the North Pole to start working on next year’s toy delivery. If you’re on the fence (or the shelf) about whether to invite one of Santa’s elves into your own home, maybe ask yourself whether you’d have enjoyed having one around during your own childhood. I think we as parents can easily forget what it was like to be young and wide-eyed and totally believing in the magic of the season. For me, I get a few minutes each morning to watch my sons go on the hunt for a little elf named Fred who makes them smile, reminds them to behave a bit, and helps them count down to the day that comes just way too fast as you get older.

So, are you anti-Elf or pro-Elf?
Tell us in the comment section below
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37 thoughts on “The Elf on the Shelf Smackdown

  1. Darn, I saw the link and was hoping that someone had taken two elfs and animated them claymation style in a knock down drag out cage steel match. hmm……

  2. I’ll be sitting in the Grinch seats with Mel. I’m not a huge fan of the whole Santa Claus deception (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it), but the elf just rubs me the wrong way entirely. (Creepy little guy. I wouldn’t put it past him.)

  3. Besides the fact that the Elf is creepy, besides the fact that I am secular and celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas and find the Elf seems to undermine and not necessarily enhance the whole wonder of the holidays….the main thing I find irritating and disturbing about the whole thing is the self-congratulatory nature of it. The fact that parents feel the need to “brag” on social media about their “creativity” concerning the Elf, etc. If you want to do it, fine…but I don’t need to be giving you a pat on the back for being a parent, do I?

  4. Sorry EFL was a blast . Watching my grandkids wake up each morning and rush to find their elf was just fun.

  5. I don’t really like the Elf, although I admit that I didn’t know about it until maybe last year, when the Bloggess posted this “Elves are A-holes” blurb (note: probably not appropriate for kids):

    I’m not all against having mystery and magic, though. I thought the Dinovember thing was brilliant, even if I’d never do it because it involves making messes for me to clean up:

    I think I like for there to be some things that are unexplained for my kids to figure out, but not necessarily things where I’m giving them a bogus explanation. We do have Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny at our house, but it’s fairly low-key. They get their gifts or quarters or whatever, and I don’t make up elaborate stories about how they got there. Personally I’d lean toward not doing them, but my wife likes the traditions. She still thinks the elf is creepy, though.

    1. I’m all for making magic for kids; or allowing them to believe in whatever magical explanations they’ve concocted as along as possible. Though cleaning up unnecessary messes is where I draw the line.

        1. One day they will be out of the house and there won’t be any messes. Don’t wish the fun childhood away or be afraid of a mess. Let them paint, play playdough, cook with you…and gasp…that elf may do something fun that requires cleaning up. Maybe their smile or squeal is worth it

  6. Down with the Elf! It’s not just the creepy, stalker vibe I dislike, but the fact that he is used as a bargaining chip for kids. Why bribe kids into being nice? Shouldn’t we be raising them to be nice anyways? I also dislike the “If you’re bad you get nothing, and said creepy Elf reports back to Santa!”-WHAT?!?!? Seriously? The “Elf” will make a mess in your home while you sleep; scattering flour, sprinkles, etc, hanging off your light fixture, or pooping out hershey kisses on your kitchen counter (take a look at the interesting pinterest ideas for your Elf if you’re confused), but YOU have to be good? What kind of message is that?! He’s like a corrupt cop or the leader of some strange Elfin Mob!! I hate the message this sends kids…in essence, “Santa’s love for you is conditional, and you will only be rewarded if you do what I feel is appropriate.” Sorry, but that’s not how I love my kids. They may act a fool sometimes, but I choose to discourage the negative behavior, not the child.

    1. Laughing hard at the idea of the elf as a corrupt cop.

      I don’t want my kids to get the idea of conditional love in their heads; even if those conditions don’t come from me.

    2. Seriously! I don’t think I could have said it better myself. I hate the hypocrisy that seems to be a big part of most people’s version of the tradition: YOU have to be good, because this Elf here is watching you and going to tattle on you to Santa, but HE can do whatever-the-heck he wants to during his month long reign of terror. Also, see #4 on this list:

  7. All of my friends buy their Elf on the Shelf dolls to keep their kids under control during the holidays. It bothers me that people have to basically bribe and/or lie to their kids in order for them to behave. If you can’t control your kids without being underhanded then you might want to reevaluate your parenting strategy. Of course, if you do it just for fun then more power to you I guess. πŸ˜‰

    1. As in, what strategies do people use the other 11 months of the year? And if they need a special strategy to get through this particular month, perhaps the month itself is being presented in too an intense way for a kid to handle?

  8. We had an Elf, Twinkle, join our family about 3 years ago when my youngest was 4 and the older two siblings were 10 and 12. It was just for a little fun for the little one. At first the 10 yr old thought he was creepy, as Mel says, and she would be very upset if Twinkle decided to show up in her bedroom (which she shares with the youngest). Interestingly, this year (middle daughter now 13) is much more into what Twinkle represents for her sister and joins in the fun of his crazy antics during his visit with us. She (the 13 yr old) has commented on the commercialism aspect with the spin-offs in the children’s section of the stores being counter productive to the magical aspect of the Elf.

    As for the whole negative connotation of the Elf spying on you and reporting back to Santa as compared to the government spying on us as citizens is a little far fetched — that is like saying that by letting our children watch Disney movies or cartoons that we are teaching our children that animals can speak English (talk to humans), that a kiss from a handsome man can break a spell on a pretty girl cast by the evil witch. There are many other much more dangerous things that our society is exposing our children to on TV and in real life that are much more important to focus our attentions towards correcting.

    I believe that children recognize as they grow that creativity (which is a vital aspect of the Elf’s visits), the magic of Christmas and just having fun traditions are important and the Elf on the Shelf can be a part of this. At the same time they can recognize the negative aspects of commercialism in our society which applies to many more things – most holidays, Black Friday, the short life span of electronic products causing everyone to spend more and more just to keep up with the Jones, etc.

    I have to end with a very special story from this year….. a 5 yr old friend told my 7 yr old daughter that she wanted a scout elf. My daughter wrote a letter to Santa for Twinkle (our elf) to deliver. She asked Santa to send her friend a scout elf (no prompting by me for this to be done). Our friend’s mother had already gotten the elf before the letter was sent and because I knew about my daughter’s letter we created a special letter to go with the Elf on the Shelf explaining that she was a BRAND NEW Scout Elf and that she was sent out to be with the family because her friend (my daughter) had written to Santa. The pure joy and excitement this little girl is experiencing because of this special surprise is one of the best things about Christmas. She even wrote a thank you note to my daughter!! So here we have an example of how the Elf on the Shelf has taught two little girls the lessons of compassion, friendship and gratitude.

    Life is a journey of learning about the world around you and there are things we experience and learn that have both positive and negative aspects and the real lesson is distinguishing between them.

    The Elf is not for everyone, but nothing is perfect!!

  9. Down with the Elf! I agree with the article and the above mentioned reasons stated by other comments but I feel the same way about the Santa scheme in general. The Elf just adds a tangible creepy factor to the old omniscient peeping Tom creepy blackmailer story. I just get a bad taste in my mouth for the tradition of lying to my kid. (we don’t do Santa, Easter Bunnies, tooth fairies) There are enough unexplained wondrous things in the universe begging to be explored without manufacturing an ominous blackmailing figure in Red.

  10. I’m anti-elf and Santa as several have mentioned. I think its more important for our children to believe that being good and moral and giving and caring is about more than gifts and make believe people who watch your every move (Yes, we are also atheists). My wife and I both grew up poor and our parents had to work very hard to give us gifts at Christmas and we were both very thankful and aware of what it took to get those great gifts. And that would have been greatly diminished if we thought that they were just magically created and given because we were good versus that our parents loved us and wanted to make us happy enough to work that much harder.

    1. I would rather have my kids appreciating my efforts than loving on some magical being. Not as a guilt trip but as a way of understanding the value of something.

      1. They may not appreciate your “effort” for 5 years…but they will appreciate it in a much deeper way as adults and appreciate how much of an effort you made. My mom was a single mom, dirt poor and worked 2-3 jobs. As a kid I thought Santa made the toys. As an adult I realized it was her. She worked extra hours and stayed up until 2am wrapping my gifts. Christmas morning was magical for me and I appreciate all of her efforts now as an adult and cherish my childhood memories!

  11. Poor delusional parents. Still eating the cookies, reindeer food, making faux tracks through the house. One more lie to keep up with, just to continue the farce that is the commercialization of the holiday. Your kids pretend, to make YOU happy, or they are pretty gullible, unless they are 3.

    1. You aren’t a parent, I take it. If you ever become a parent I’d encourage you to allow them to experience SOME magic in their childhood. It’s not about commercialization…it’s about adding some FUN and MAGIC. πŸ˜‰

  12. I’ve always (as an adult) been anti-Santa, partly because I would rather have my kids know that their parents and grandparents love them unconditionally and enjoy giving them gifts, than think that some magical being bribes them for good behavior on an annual basis. Mainly, however, I just want to be able to look them in the eyes and with a clear conscience tell them I have never intentionally or knowingly lied to them. For a few years I allowed Sants just to humor my mother, on the condition that she supply the gifts from Santa, and for a few more years I did it just to maintain the staus quo. I finally decided that it was time to stick to my convictions and put an end to Santa in our house a couple years ago, after our third child was born. Our older two, who were twelve and seven at the time, never batted an eyelash at the news that Santa would not be coming that year. That was expected from the twelve-year-old, who we were pretty sure was just keeping up appearances of believing for his sister’s sake (and not to jeopardize his gifts), but we were a little shocked that our seven-year-old daughter basically just shrugged and said “okay” – after confirming that she would still receive the same number of gifts. Our younger children will be raised with the knowledge that some people believe in a magical fairy, roughly based on a combination of characteristics from a Catholic saint and Eastern European folklore, who brings presents to good little children – although his standards must be pretty lax, because we all know some of those kids have been right little turds all year – and that that’s okay for them, and we should respect their choices, but our family chooses differently.

    So, yeah, down with the elf, not on its own merit, but because it perpetuates a farce that I already refuse to participate in.

  13. Glad I found this. My husband and I are very anti-Elf. Today when I picked up my 5 year old daughter all her friends were talking about their elf’s antics. I felt bad, like my daughter is missing out. But I have snapped out of my momentary guilt. No elf at our house. Beside finding the whole thing creepy, I can imagine that so many nights I would go bed then realize I forgot to move that stupid elf! LOL

  14. What has boggled my mind about saying that the elf is reporting good AND bad behavior to Santa, is that the parent then has the elf doing mischievous things. So, essentially, the elf gets to have bad behavior but the kid doesn’t? What in the heck kind of messed up logic is that? In my house, we do the elf, but the elf only does nice things, like colors a page in a coloring book, or makes paper snowflakes and hangs them on the tree. We also do not say that the elf is watching, rather it’s just a magical and positive fun thing that happens at Christmas time. I laugh out loud at parents that say “the elf is always watching, so you better be on your best behavior” as their elf is sitting on a table eating a mess of chocolates or has colored mustaches on all of the pictures in the house, or hanging from a ceiling fan. D’oh!

  15. It’s an Elf. Get over yourselves and find something deeper to ponder. They make Christmas a little more fun and magical for kids. PERIOD. When kids learn that Santa and Elves aren’t real they won’t be scarred for life and mistrust parents. Rolling eyes. They will look back with fond and sweet memories. I was dirt poor as a kid. Santa came every year. Did I think Santa magically made the toys? Yep! And NOW as an adult I realize WHY my mom did it. The big fat man got “credit” for 9 or 10 years and my mom gets the “credit” for the rest of my teen and adult life. And really– who cares? Why do parents need credit for gifts. Do you want to rob them of a few years of fun and magic so they know you worked hard to buy them the toys. As for the social media posts “bragging”….I see it much differently. I am sharing my excitement with other parents. And I LOVE seeing their ideas and giggled when I saw my friend’s elf pooped Hershey kisses that night. Maybe some of the posts here are from people without kids. And, you know what…I get that. Until your kids light up when they see something magical— you just can’t get it. But if you DO have kids and are so anti-Santa and anti-elf and anti everything that isn’t “real”… than I honestly feel bad for your kids. You have the rest of your life to live in the real world. Being a kid means believing in some magic and wonder and being wide eyed and giddy for a few years. I don’t think you just shout at them when they are born “Hey…wake up and smell the roses kid! Santa is fake, and so is the tooth fairy, and Mickey is in a costume, and rainbows are nothing more that moisture and sun…..and I am telling you now!” Kids can experience the magic of these kinds of things for a VERY short time in their lives…yet it sticks with them forever. Why rob them of that because YOU are so cynical. They will be critical thinking teens and adults in a blink of an eye. So why not enjoy it and let them be A KID?

  16. No elf here. The kewpie eyes creep me out. When I was growing up, my toys were my greatest friends because they wouldn’t tell anyone. Ever. I could tell them all my secrets. This was part of the joy of having toys, of snuggling them close, and feeling them never judge, never hate, never anything but reflect the love I gave them back to me. So the idea of one watching, reporting… that’s just not nice. That’s naughty.

    I have 3 kids, so yeah we get fights. Sometimes I have been known to point out that Santa is always watching. As my daughter got older, a kindergartner told her how there was no Santa. We talked about the myth of Santa, how Saint Nicholas gave toys and dowries to help people get married, and how after he died when someone would give a gift that they didn’t want credit for they would say “Santa did it” and that made sense to her. Santa is always watching turned out not to be a lie, whether it was me, or a stranger with goodwill on the street, there were Santas always watching, ready to give without thought of anything in return, not even good behavior.

    The elf idea is so… weird. It just doesn’t fit our beliefs or even our make-believe fun traditions.

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