Tips &

Tips &

Elf on the shelf: Festive fun or Christmas coercion?

December 2022
Janthea Brigden
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‘I must be very naughty’ said a child from a less affluent family in one of my settings. “I only get chocolate coins and a tangerine”.

Other children in the creche were talking about the size of their stockings, and how many presents they were going to get, in relation to how ‘good’ they were being.

“Be good, or Santa won’t come!”

“The elves are watching you know! They will tell Santa!”

“I hope you are being good for your mum because Santa’s always watching”.

These are just some of the coercive Christmas messages that I have heard adults direct at children this year.

Westfield shopping centre in London has even brought in a professional polygraph examiner, to find out whether children have been ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’ for Santa with a lie detector test. And then, of course, there’s ‘elf on the shelf’…

What is Elf on the Shelf? 

If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few Christmases, you will probably be aware of the ‘Elf on the shelf’ trend. 

This newish Christmas craze started in 2005 with a self-published book; ‘Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition’ by a US woman, Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. 

The story is about some 'scout elves' who come down from the North Pole to help Santa keep tabs on his naughty/nice list, by watching children’s behaviour in the lead-up to Christmas.

The book comes with a ‘scout elf’ which many parents leave around the house in different locations to show their child that the elf is watching. Some parents film their child’s reactions to the elf’s movements on social media, finding more and more elaborate situations to put the elf into. 

What is the problem with Elf on the Shelf? 

Whilst it may seem like a bit of harmless fun, this surveillance-like approach to behaviour could have a negative impact on children. 

Modern neuroscience has proved that human beings respond best when they feel safe, have a sense of belonging and believe they matter. 

Many big companies now include their staff in decision-making and acknowledge that people respond better by feeling valued and part of the company. This is a more effective approach than being rewarded by incentives or threatened by punishments. 

Children’s behaviour is just that; behaviour. Shouldn’t we, as adults, be trying to understand the behaviour, rather than threatening a loss of presents if they behave in a way that we don’t like?

As I have written before, the idea of ‘good’ and bad’ behaviour, or being ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’, is highly subjective and can change from day to day depending on the context. 

Understanding behaviour

Our pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control and regulating emotions, doesn’t stop developing until we’re 26. That’s why asking children to control their emotions is often, literally asking the impossible! 

This manipulative Christmas coercion pandemic has real potential to fuel anxiety and depression in later life. I wonder, given that 1 in 6 children in the UK suffer from a mental health issue, how much pressure is the need to be constantly ‘good’ putting on their mental health?

On top of that, the idea that there is an elf in their space spying on them, could be distressing and make the child feel unsafe in their own home. 

Tips for avoiding negative coercion at Christmas time

  1. Avoid coercive language. If relatives or friends use it, explain to your child that “Father Christmas understands big feelings are hard to control and doesn’t mind us making mistakes.”
  1. If your child has become anxious about the idea of a big bearded man in a red suit creeping into their room in the middle of the night, get them to write him a letter asking him please to leave the presents downstairs or outside.
  1. If friends' children have the ‘elves’  and seem to be enjoying the ‘fun’ and your own children ask why one hasn’t come to your house, explain that the elves aren’t needed in your house. Tell them that you don’t need someone to watch them and report back to Santa because you love them just how they are, warts and all and you are sure Santa does too.
  1. We often want our children to show the best version of themselves to friends and family at Christmas. Frequently they pick up on this and the pressure produces the reverse! That’s when well-meaning relatives may start trying to back you up with Santa threats. Take a big breath and remember that your relationship with your child is the most important one! 

What do you think of Elf on the Shelf? Do you follow any alternative Christmas traditions with your children?