‘Elf On A Shelf’ Revisited : Psychologically Sound?

Santa has had his fair share of helpers over the years — the Austrian Krapmus, the Dutch Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), and the German Knecht Ruprecht, just to name a few. But a couple years ago, Santa has acquired a new helper — and he’s gaining popularity every day: The Elf on the Shelf. You likely know someone who has one; you may likely have one yourself. Most see it as fun and harmless and innocent.

For those who don’t know what The Elf on the Shelf is, it is simply a small elf doll that you can place on a shelf (which you can buy for $29.95). But the name is not as self-explanatory as it first might seem; there’s much more. He comes with his own website, iPhone apps, and even his own TV Christmas special.

The controversial part is what you tell the kids about The Elf on the Shelf.

“The elf is actually alive and moves around when you’re not looking. He’s watching you and you never know where he will turn up next. And if he sees you doing something wrong he reports directly back to Santa.”

Even the ad of Amazon purports his ability to watch children.

“Every year at Christmas, Santa sends his elves to watch you. And they go back and tell him who’s been bad and who’s been good. The Elf on the Shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do. The Elf on the Shelf is watching you, each and every Christmas.”

Kids are not allowed to touch him, and you are supposed to move him around every night to a different place in the house so the kids think he’s alive. This way, anytime the children misbehave, all you have to do is remind them that The Elf on the Shelf is watching. Harmless fun – right?

One philosophy professor provides a compelling argument about the dangers of the Elf on the Shelf, namely that it is a lie, threatens the trustworthiness of parents, ultimately encourages gullibility in children rather than critical thinking, and inadvertently teaches children that their behavior should be governed by what rewards they can ultimately get (i.e., gifts on Christmas).

Many psychologists suggest that, like believing in Santa, participating in the Elf on the Shelf, can foster creativity and imagination. This depends on how “imagination” is defined. Some argue that imagination requires pretending, and to pretend that the Elf on the Shelf comes to life at night would require knowing that it does not actually do so.

Many others have a broader definition of imagination that includes pretending but does not require it. Here it involves believing in the magic of the Elf or, even if there are doubts, simply wondering about the possibilities of the Elf coming to life and what it might do each night.

Dr. Westers in clear that there are many uses of elf on the shelf, some less damaging than others.

If a primary motive is to manage a child’s behavior (e.g., frequently stating, “The Elf on the Shelf is going to tell Santa how bad you’re being”), however, then children might interpret this to mean that it is not their behavior that is being labeled as “bad,” but them as individuals.

If parents do call on the Elf to report to Santa, it should be used much more often to reinforce good behavior rather than to report problem behavior. If the thought of constantly being watched by the Elf is not bizarre or creepy enough for some children, then its use as a threat for punishment (e.g., no presents) may be fear-inducing and contrary to the ultimate goal of using the Elf to bring joy.”

So there you have it – how are you using your Elf on a Shelf? Thoughts on the “new” Christmas tradition?

[image via Reuters]