Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Elf?

OK, he isn’t that big, but you have to admit, it has a better ring to it than, “Who’s afraid of the miniature, motionless Elf,”. Nevertheless, the relatively new advent of Santa culture known as the “Elf on the Shelf” is, in my humble opinion, one scary development in kid control, and a clear example of just how far in the wrong direction we have gone toward coercing our children into (and out of) certain behaviors.

The little elf figurine comes with a book describing how the magic spy toy sits watching kids all day to assess their relative naughty to nice ratio, and then disappears each night to return the information to Santa (so he can modify his master list if necessary). The parents are then supposed to move the elf to a new location each night, maintaining the children’s belief in the magic of the elf in order to protect the potency of the control mechanism, as well as to give the children the fun opportunity to play hide-and-seek with the miniature narc. It is sold as an instant “family tradition”, and comes with a nice box to stow the book and elf in between seasonal missions.

As far as family traditions go, playing a child’s game, like hide-and-seek, with a behavior modification device may well be the hallmark of our culture’s current take on how to parent children effectively. These people have actually made a kids’ book and toy, and invented a “family tradition” solely for the purpose of manipulating our children’s behavior. They’ve even got the kids duped into enjoying a portion of it as a game. Unfortunately, the kids are competing against themselves, we are vying to help them, and the whole game is toxic to the relationship we share.

I recently came across a blog that was asking the readers to weigh in about bribing kids with the notion that Santa will only bring them toys if they “behave like good little kids”. I think I would actually call it blackmail, since the opposite proposition is more often wielded, such that kids are threatened that if they get caught being “naughty”, Santa will stiff them. For parents this shrinks into a bit of a joke, but for the kids it becomes one heck of a scary proposition — in large part because the parameters of “good” behavior are consistently uncertain, and seemingly at the parents’ whim.

I remember being so concerned about it as a kid that I began to hide from my mother even more than I might normally (as a very private kid), so as not to be seen “misbehaving”, and therefore deemed less than “nice”. The idea, though not heavily leveed against me by my mom, was still strong enough that I felt forced to lie about anything that might potentially reveal that I was indeed “naughty”. I hope you are picking up on just how problematic even a mild version of Santa blackmail can turn out for the parent-child relationship.

The mechanism itself isn’t fail-safe in terms of function, either. Aside from putting a psycho-emotional wedge between children (the perps) and their parents (the fuzz), a method like the spy elf, or Santa blackmail in general, also loses effectiveness fairly quickly — both in the long and short term. In the end, kids decide not to believe in Santa or the spirit of what he represents, and the ability to control them vanishes with the man in the red suit. In the short term, the mechanism lacks real teeth. There may be no parent in the world who is really prepared to put coal and switches in place of presents around the tree or in stockings hung by our hopeful little sons and daughters. In fact, the threat is so empty, and flung out so often during the holiday season, that if it is working at all to control how a child behaves, it’s a Christmas miracle. And, as noted above, if Santa blackmail is working to coerce a child, there is a good chance that a deterioration of the child’s trust in the parent and some later resentment are also part of the package.

Our children need to know from us that they are good and loved without condition. They need to know that their goodness is not a matter of what actions they perform. They may do things we don’t want, and not do all we do want, but do we really need to levy such a wonderful time of year against them, just to get a few more minutes of quiet or compliance out of them? There are other ways to achieve cooperation, but generally all of them are less successful if compliance is really the primary focus. I don’t mean that to be a Zen trick, I simply mean that if we are too heavily focussed on controlling every little action, we cannot also be focussed on fostering the relationship necessary or most likely to encourage greater cooperation on the part of our children.

The bottom line is this, little Elf — we don’t need to bribe or blackmail our children to get them to do what we need them to do. Ever. So get lost, and don’t expect us to come seeking you. (I thought elves were supposed to be mischievous anyway…)


Be well, holiday parents. Keep breathing.


About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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10 Responses to Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Elf?

  1. kloppenmum says:

    Good grief, that’s taking parental control to the extreme! We don’t have them in NZ…(yet) thank-goodness.

  2. kloppenmum says:

    Sadly, it’s more likely than not that we’ll get them…never mind. Have a great Christmas!

  3. Erin says:

    I have heard of these…and I actually thought I was hearing a gag review, apparently not. How horrifying to really take apart what is happening withing families with these elves: the “story” that goes with them and the gimmick to involve the kids in their own coercion. Children are such innocent believers. And to prey upon that and instill a fear of being “bad” and losing out on a sacred inclusion of a part of many family’s lives and special times together is, I’ll repeat, horrific. I’m sorry you went through the fear and shame of needing to “hide yourself”. I wish you continued healing about that, and thanks for sharing about it. I grew up hearing the words…”you’re gonna get it…!” as a motivator to obey and do the ever-changing-on-parental whim “right” things. Thank goodness my parents’ generation didn’t have these elves, too!

    Happy Solstice!

  4. Miranda says:

    My son has a friend with some mental development problems (not sure exactly what) and his mother told me about this elf thing since about October. I thought she was nuts! Her kid has learning, listening, attention issues but she refuses to do the recommended therapy, yet she is using this crazy elf threat! Poor kid getting more messed up everyday. Makes me feel sad and mad.

  5. Deja Harrison says:

    Love this! I totally agree!

  6. Mandy says:

    Completely agree. Hate them with a vengeance. They are really creepy looking too.

    • Hey Catherine —

      I am going to give a tentative thumbs up to the kindness elves. I really love the idea of family traditions that turn up the volume on the engagement with the holiday spirit. So they get a gold star for that. I also really love the idea of them bringing suggestions of fun, and service-oriented and/or kindness-centered activities. Two gold stars for that.

      Where I get hung up is on the praise part. I don’t think this version is nearly as insidious as the “Elf on the Shelf” tattle-taling spy, but coercion is coercion in my book and always comes at a cost to the relationship, the kid’s self-identity, and her intrinsic motivation. It is absolutely unnecessary for teaching or inspiring compassion and loving kindness, and it actually undermines kids’ interest in doing kind things in the long run.

      But if you can leave that part off, I see no problem at all. They’re really cute too!

      Thanks for writing in Catherine!

      Be well.


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