Putting out the Elf on the Shelf

It can’t be just me- that Elf on the Shelf is just a bit scary, no?

And what a tattle tale.

There’s  Santa at the North Pole in crunch time.  By now he’s already checked his list twice and he’s moving on to wrapping and loading the sleigh.

But first, he has to deal with  these CONSTANT interruptions by his American elf helpers.

This child didn’t eat all her peas…This little boy didn’t want to share his truck…or maybe they didn’t brush their teeth…. Come on- we already knew that and have reserved the bags of coal accordingly.  “It’s GO! time!” an exasperated Santa must be thinking, “Don’t these elves have something better they can be doing?”

The history of the Mother/Daughter Trio who wrote, self-published and marketed this new family tradition is indeed amazing and inspirational, so before you worry- I’m not about to entirely knock the Elf totally off the Shelf..   I’m all about FAMILY TRADITIONS be it tried and true or new to you- especially during the holidays.  These yearly rituals are a part of our social fabric that marks each family as unique while also celebrating our connectivity.

And while the story of the Elf on the Shelf seems harmless enough- its implementation by some well-intentioned adults as a form of behavior modification does have potential for some long-range ramifications.

Consider what the early childhood developmental theorists observed about motivation and what current brain research now concludes:  extrinsic incentives may work in the short run, but over time, they actually interfere with the very behaviors adults are working to promote.  Not to mention, they can cause a child to disengage from her own method of learning- which, yes, involves testing limits- to hide her authentic self.  The mask gets put on.

And that Elf in particular- hiding, lurking, always watching- reporting back- is that truly the emotional climate we want to train our young children to expect in their own homes?

Things at the school seemed to be status quo without the Elf, so I asked Head of School, Megan Nordoff, how she was faring at home during the holidays with her own young children and what she thought of Elf on the Shelf.

“I sometimes feel that I’ve given birth to a pair of little monsters when I get home,” she said half jokingly.  “Parents are often surprised to discover that I also face many of the same challenges at home as a Mom with setting limits and following routines while at the same time adjusting for spontaneous moments and holiday activities breaking from the norm.”

Megan concurred that based on the stories shared by the children in her care from two years through Kindergarten, that when used to direct a child’s behavior, the Elf seemed to be more beneficial as a band-aid perhaps quickly stopping a temporary flow of noncompliance and attributed its rise as a new holiday tradition contrived from commercialism and consumerism fueled by an unrelenting advertising and media campaign.  Used as a way to control your child’s behavior, The Elf robs your child the opportunity to “behave” for the common good- to learn to control his own impulses and will in order to collaborate towards to common good of society- a process of learning that takes all of his efforts this first six years of his life.

As things begin to unravel at home as they often do during what can be an over-stimulating holiday season, Megan has invested in some pre-planning to help avoid a stressful meltdown.  They include:

* building in unscheduled time at home at least once a week when nothing is planned

* starting bedtime routines a bit earlier and lengthening them to ensure little ones get to bed on time

* keep diets balanced – limiting holiday sweets to earlier in the day- and drinking lots of water

* make a holiday tradition with project oriented, hands on activities such as cookie making or gingerbread house building rather than screen time

*find something you can all do together to celebrate this time of year and when limits are tested, take them as learning opportunities to instill long-range family values

*care for yourself!  Have you been on a date lately?  Need a little pampering?  During this time of year, adults often forget to take time alone or with their partner to refuel.

These added measures proactively help Megan’s family avoid misbehavior often resulting when physical needs are not met or due to overstimulation.  And, in the event that redirection is in order, Megan feels better prepared herself being refueled to take TIME IN, be fully present, and help guide her children socially and emotionally through a learning opportunity.  For it to be COOPERATION it must be a request- coercion and demands provide little of the required scaffolding necessary for young children to learn pro-social skills often reflected upon as ‘being good.”

Will Ms. Megan be getting an Elf on the Shelf for her family for the holiday season?  “I’ve learned that as a parent never to say ‘I never…’, but right now there doesn’t seem to be room for it on our mantle.”

“The prize and the punishment are incentives towards unnatural or forced effort, and therefore we cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them.” Dr. Maria Montessori

4 thoughts on “Putting out the Elf on the Shelf”

  1. When I initially saw your blog title and intro I got a bit defensive. I’m a little tired of progressive parenting that seeks to destroy some ‘family traditions’ like the belief in Santa Claus (because it’s all a lie) or similar scenarios.
    But I guess my defensiveness is born from the fact that we don’t use the Elf as an extrinsic motivator or tattle tale. We use the Elf as a game each morning, of seek and find. That’s it.
    But I also grew up with the original Elf, which belonged to my grandparents and my mother and was a part of their tree in the 1950s. It became a part of our tree and tradition in the 70s and 80s, and now it’s part of our tradition.
    So yes I agree that the commercialized ‘big brotheresque’ nature of the modern Elf is not such a great thing, but in some sense I will continue to defend it.

    1. Christine- We love the way you are sharing the Elf with your family and that you can contribute so many fond childhood memories and multi-generational reflections. That’s what it’s all about!

  2. While I see many parents using Santa Clause or an elf as a motivator for good behavior, I think we should be careful to condem all the traditions. We do have Santa visit our house and the Elf on the Shelf is a part of our tradition. He is not used as a spy, but as a welcome guest to help us celebrate the holiday season. At a time of year when everyone wants to stay in bed bit longer, my kids are eager to get up and find “Oddly” (the name they choose for our elf). The traditions we have created around him are more about the magic of the season than on a spy to keep the kids in line. I believe that everyone, kids and adults, need a little magic in their lives and the holiday season is a great time of year to remind us of that. The kids tell Oddly about good deeds or acts of kindness that they saw throughout their day (not of themselves, but of those they witnessed). What I am seeing is that the kids are reporting on each other more and more because they are acutally doing more good deeds, not for the recognition or so that Oddly will report back to Santa, but because they see others doing good.
    As with most things in life, they are not inherently good or bad. It is how we choose to incorporate them into our lives and our traditions that dictate their effects.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Heather-

      We agree that with most things, it is how adults choose to incorporate ideas into a child’s life that can dictate the effects. And as with most things, moderation.

      Adults typically have the best of intentions and, especially during this time of year, are every bit as exited as children in enjoying the mystery and magic of the holiday season. When we hear of children at school, however, with comments like having to be good at home because the elf just arrived or talking about the elf watching them- well, it just causes a pause. And perhaps a moment of consideration. We have heard of some wonderful Elf Shelf stories which warm the heart. The danger being, perhaps, when it’s used as a tool to moderate a child’s behavior.

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