A couple of years ago, while visiting my parents at Thanksgiving, their neighbor’s little girl told me about how one of Santa’s elves comes to stay with her family during the month of December. With wide eyes, she described how each night until Christmas the elf flies off to Old Saint Nick and reports on her behavior, so she Always Has to Be Nice! She said this with great Emphasis. When the elf returns from the North Pole, he hides someplace new in the house, and so each morning she rushes around looking for him.
Her mother stood nearby, nodding as the girl talked — at least until the girl wasn’t looking, when she winked at me all conspiratorially. When her daughter ran off, she said, “You’ve got to try it.”
I had two reactions to this: what a brilliant idea, and how reprehensible.
What I didn’t know at the time was that it wasn’t this mother’s concept, but a product she purchased called The Elf on the Shelf. Because I (A.) don’t watch morning talk shows and news programs that feature so-called nifty products for parents, (B.) largely avoid big box stores, and (C.) don’t care enough to pay attention to this kind of junk anyway, I had never heard of The Elf on the Shelf, which comes with a book to indoctrinate your child with, and even accessories, should you want to spiff your little imp up for the holiday — your elf, I mean.
Now, look, we do Santa in our house, so I’m not above lying to my child for the sake of some yuletide magic — but there are limits, people. We all have them. Maybe you do Santa but not the Tooth Fairy. Perhaps you do Santa and the Tooth Fairy but not the Easter Bunny. Really, who does do the Easter Bunny with a straight face? That egg-hiding rodent raises too many questions, first and foremost what the heck a rabbit is doing with chicken eggs and candy. It goes too far.
The Elf on the Shelf crosses the line for me, from Christmastime fun to Christmastime creepy. Not only is it a monthlong extended lie, pretending that this plastic figurine you purchased comes endowed with magic, but it too easily equates being good with getting presents. The message it sends is a clear one: be nice because you are being watched — Santa’s got surveillance on you! — and you wouldn’t want to run the risk of getting a lump of coal instead of a sackful of presents, right?
Has anyone ever given their children coal and left a note saying, “Stop hitting people,” or “Get better grades,” or “You shouldn’t have played on Daddy’s computer?” Probably not. No, we all give our kids presents at Christmas, and we all should. It’s part of the magic of the holiday, at least for a few precious years, until your observant kid starts asking questions or hears word on the street that the present-doling fat man is nothing but a figment of our cultural imagination.
You shouldn’t be nice in order to please a mythical figure that rewards you for your niceness. Niceness is its own reward; being nice feels good and right. It’s just how people should treat one another with respect and consideration, compassion and care. Kids learn this behavior from their parents and friends, and by talking about morality and ethics, and using their imagination and reading to learn about humanity and the world.
When it comes to their children’s behavior, parents shouldn’t make hollow threats, nor should they provide hollow rewards. The Elf on the Shelf does both.