“Elf on the Shelf”: Discipline Helper or Creepy Voyeur?

Elf on the shelf doing a puzzle

Cropped image. Mark Baylor, Flickr. CC License.

It’s early December, which means some of you may have your “Elf on the Shelf” moving in as part of your family’s holiday tradition. We don’t own one, but I’ve seen the amazingly creative, often time-consuming antics of other people’s elves. I even found a calendar with ideas to set up. Every day.

At my house it’s pretty much all we can do to decorate, shop, make holiday treats, etc. If we did own an elf, ours would probably be sleeping a lot. In the same spot. Which, I’ve learned, is not the idea.

No, this little darling is supposed to come out for the holidays and basically spy on your children. The elf reports back to the North Pole giving glowing reviews or ratting the children out. The next morning, the elf should be in a different spot for more observing and covert operations.

This is the part where you’re supposed to find new sorts of frolics for the elf. In return for your efforts, you can simply invoke the elf anytime one of your kids looks cross-eyed at the other, and magically, good behavior will occur!

Is this voyeur elf really an effective discipline strategy?

In researching this topic, I came across this article. Some parents swore by their elves, citing good behavior for at least a month. Others found them “sort of creepy”. Child development experts noted that using the empty threat of coal-in-the-stocking is probably not our best bet.

Parental authority aside, logistically, I’m pretty sure my kids wouldn’t buy it. If the elf is in the kitchen—having spattered the floor, cabinets and counters with batter because he tried to make cupcakes (a particularly awful suggestion, especially since the Elf is now modeling something we don’t want our kids to do)—how could he have possibly seen misbehavior occurring in another room? Yes, we could give the elf Santa-like powers and say it simply “knows” what you’re doing. Well, what if your child does something naughty and you don’t know, so of course the elf doesn’t know? What if one child makes up unfounded accusations against another claiming, “The elf saw it!”

It’s all very exhausting in my opinion. And now you have batter to clean up or Christmas trees to de-toilet-paper (yeah, that’s another suggestion) on top of explaining the whole concept and trying desperately to get your holiday-amped children to behave.

I know some people have a lot of fun with this, but bottom line: Limit-setting and consequences for behavior need to be year-round, and not dependent on whether some toy saw you do it.

I’m passing on the elf.

Happy holidays!

– Lori Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, HOPE Center at Beaumont Children’s Hospital

1 Response to ““Elf on the Shelf”: Discipline Helper or Creepy Voyeur?”



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