The Elf on the Shelf Tradition Is No ‘Quick Fix’ for Raising Children

Elf on the Shelf logoI know discussions about the Elf on the Shelf can really trigger some parents’ intense emotions.1 Amy, of the Funny Is Family blog, reports that fans “swear by the magical properties that turn their kids into well behaved angels from Thanksgiving to Christmas.” She represents a small minority of parents who don’t understand why someone would add to the holiday stress by taking on the work involved in keeping up the holiday hoax, and also protests that this Elf on the Shelf is just one more addition to our bully culture:

We can’t say anything because you’re in Santa’s inner circle? Sounds to me like we’ve brought a bully in the house. Hey kids, it’s okay to let someone treat you badly if they are important. Or if they know someone important.2

In an article in the Atlantic, that I highly recommend for your reading, You’re a Creepy One, Elf on the Shelf, Kate Tuttle writes:

 An object that disappears and reappears is wonderfully fun—but it doesn’t have to be something from a store or someone else’s imagination, much less a committee’s. If you have an Elf, make up your own story about what he’s doing in your house—the weirder the better. Do not like him on Facebook. Do not use him to bully your child into thinking that good behavior equals gifts.3

Tuttle calls it a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a “tradition.” If you have already bought this toy you are clearly not alone — the marketing has been very successful. It has been marketed so well that it was the #1 Best Seller in Pretend Play on Amazon.com4 and has annual sales of $10 million.5

Let me be clear, my intention is not to judge or demean anyone. My purpose remains constant: to advocate for children and to cite research that can help educate parents about how their behaviour can affect their child’s intellectual, social, and emotional development.

Like all traditions, the “Elf on the Shelf Tradition” is made by people. On their business website, the creators, Carol Aebersold, Chanda Bell, and Christa Pitts, describe the “tradition” that they have created: [Bold emphasis added]

Have you ever wondered how Santa knows who is naughty and who is nice? The Elf on the Shelf® – A Christmas Tradition is the very special tool that helps Santa know who to put on the Naughty and Nice list.

… Excellent listeners and even better observers, these scout elves are the eyes and ears of Santa Claus. Although they cannot be touched, or else they may lose their magic, the elf will always listen and relay messages back to Santa. Taking in all the day-to-day activities around the house, no good deed goes unnoticed; these scout elves take their job seriously.

Each night, after the family goes to bed, the scout elf uses his magical Christmas powers to fly back to the North Pole. Once there, the elf will make his or her daily report to Santa and visit with elf friends where they will tell stories about their beloved families, play with the reindeer, and of course, sneak some of Mrs. Claus’ cookies!6

Of course, by itself, the elf is neither good nor bad. It’s an inanimate object, a toy, that children can play with using their own imagination. However, if you follow the “Elf Tradition”, the elves “cannot be touched, or else they may lose their magic”.

My purpose is to examine the “Elf on the Shelf Tradition” and to show how, if used as these women intend, it could be harmful to your child’s development, and could prevent your child from becoming the person that he or she was meant to be — and prevent you from being the parent that you want to be.

This “Elf Tradition” humanizes a toy elf — and dehumanizes children! Only the elf can be “naughty” and get away with it. It’s okay for the elf to “sneak some of Mrs. Claus’ cookies.” The elf becomes the judge and jury of a child’s behaviour. Parents, following the “tradition” tell children — and of course children believe — that a toy has power over their destiny. But can it discern what is in a child’s heart? The elf is assigned ‘magical’ powers and will use these powers, children are told, to determine whether they are worthy of being on the “nice” list or be shamed with the label “naughty”. One parent wrote that his “vantage point in the house allowed him [the elf] to ‘get the goods’ on our daughter every day.”7

Others have expressed serious concerns about this “Elf on the Shelf Tradition”. Andrea Nair, another parent educator, expresses her concerns in her blog. She describes the elf: [Bold emphasis in original]

“It is terribly cute, and if all it did was play hide-and-seek with children each morning, that would be fabulous. But unfortunately, it is not being marketed this way.

My concern is that the elf is being sold as a spy to judge child behaviour. …

As parenting educators and researchers, we have worked so hard to get “good girl” and “bad girl” out of parenting language, and this just puts it right back in. Argh!”8

This “Elf Tradition” is ultimately about getting children to comply by dangling rewards in front of them when they act the way we want (“nice”), and threatening them with punishment when they don’t comply (“naughty”).

“You didn’t do what I wanted, so now I (the elf) am going to make something unpleasant happen to you.”

“You didn’t do what I wanted, so now I (the elf) am going to make something unpleasant happen to you.”

I realize that obedience is what many people in our society want from their children, simply that they be well behaved. This demand is rooted in a very old tradition that says children are here to meet the needs of their parent and the parent’s need is for the child not to be a bother, and to comply to the parent’s wishes — in a word, to be “good”.

Over the years the strategies for producing this result may have changed. Where non-compliant kids were once routinely subjected to harsh corporal punishment9, they now may be sentenced to time-outs or be subjected to the constant surveillance of the The Elf whose raison d’etre, according to Tuttle, is to spy on kids, judge their behaviour, and report to that other man-made tradition, Santa. Tuttle gives an excerpt from the accompanying book:

“I watch and report on all that you do!” he warns in the book, later adding that “the word will get out if you broke a rule.”

The “Elf Tradition” has the same goal — to control your child so that you won’t feel so overwhelmed by all the pressures of life, including getting your child to do what you want then to do, when you want them to do it, with no dilly-dallying, and no resistance. It surely attracts busy parents who claim that they don’t have the time for theories or complications, who just want a technique that ‘works’ — a “quick fix”. The  “Elf Tradition” is a modern ‘quick fix’ for busy parents.

Also, the “Elf Tradition” has convinced many parents that they are teaching their children right from wrong, using the elf and this old-school “tradition” of threatening with a stick and dangling a carrot. The creators have even marketed this as a “tool” for Santa, alias parents. In fact, what the child will really learn will depend on the child. Never discount the influence of the child’s perspective because it will be the child’s perspective and the child’s experience of the “Elf Tradition” that will predict the outcomes:

“From both punishments and rewards, moreover, kids may derive a lesson of conditionality: I’m loved – and lovable – only when I do what I’m told. Of course, most parents would insist that they love their children no matter what. But, as one group of researchers put it in a book about controlling styles of parenting, “It is the child’s own experience of this behavior that is likely to have the greatest impact on the child’s subsequent development.” It’s the message that’s received, not the one that the adults think they’re sending, that counts.”10

Both punishments and rewards are ways of manipulating a child’s behaviour, as Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards so profoundly shows. No human being enjoys having the very things they like and desire, used as levers to control their behaviour.11

The “Elf Tradition” has been sold to many parents who value short-term obedience above all else. But for how long does it work and at what cost?

What are your long term goals for your child? When I ask this question of parents their responses resonate with the ideals that they want their children to be happy, independent, self-reliant, responsible, kind, thoughtful, able to build strong relationships, and able to make good decisions for themselves and others. Could doing this “Elf Tradition” to your children make these outcomes less likely?

I contend that the “Elf Tradition” promotes autocratic, disrespectful parenting. It diminishes the parent’s role to that of simply being a warden.

I contend that the “Elf Tradition” degrades children — its purpose is to reinforce behaviour or extinguish behaviour — as if there is nothing more to a child than behaviour. Everything, including a child’s feelings and developmental needs, must be sacrificed to the demand for compliance. It plays games with a child’s mind. You would never expect a teenager to fall for this! It exploits the innocence of unsuspecting, credulous children — children believe everything their parents tell them — even if it’s a lie. Furthermore, children are not “naughty” because they don’t yet have the skills — for instance — of impulse control, frustration tolerance, self-regulation, and self-composure. And children are not “naughty” because they are dependant on their parents to get their needs met: emotional as well as physical.

Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child writes:

The child has a primary need to be regarded and respected as the person he really is at any given time, and as the center — the central character — in his own activity.12

Of course, children need encouragement and need to be appreciated but the “Elf Tradition” convinces parents that rewards will motivate children to behave well. In fact, research shows that rewarding children can diminish a child’s intrinsic motivation. For example, very young children who receive material rewards for helping others become less likely to help in the future compared with toddlers who only receive verbal praise or receive no reward at all. This research suggests that even young children are intrinsically motivated to be kind, and that extrinsic rewards can undermine this tendency.13 Yet this elf tradition breeds the suspicion that children are essentially “bad” and perpetuates a view of children that is essentially dark.

So clearly, children can actually learn from the “Elf Tradition”. Besides damaging their intrinsic self-motivation, what else can they learn? They can learn to lie and to sneak — like the Elf — to avoid punishment.14

Instead of being the “central character — in his own activity” the “Elf Tradition” leads the child to focus on the elf. Children must focus on what the elf can do to them if they don’t comply, and what it can do for them if they do.

Have you ever heard a parent say, with a tone of disbelief, “I asked my son to help clear the table after dinner. He asked ‘What’s in it for me?'” Is a sense of entitlement the lesson we want to teach our children by rewarding compliant behaviour?

The more I learned about the “Elf Tradition” the more I turned to author Alfie Kohn’s research on the potential costs of blind obedience — obeying others to get their love and positive regard — what we call ‘conditional parenting’. In Kohn’s book, Unconditional Parenting (2006), he identifies the differences between conditional parenting and unconditional parenting with the following chart15:

Unconditional Conditional
Focus Whole child (including reasons, thoughts, feelings) Behavior
View of Human Nature Positive or balanced Negative
View of Parental Love A gift A privilege to be earned
Strategies “Working with”
(Problem solving)
“Doing to”
(Control via rewards and punishments)

I will always be grateful to Kohn for his extensive research showing that there is a big difference between a child doing something because it is the right thing to do, and a child doing it for reward or to avoid punishment.

Below are a series of excerpts from Unconditional Parenting with additional footnote links added to provide easy reference to the original sources Kohn is citing, and which he references in his book’s bibliography.

In the first chapter of Unconditional Parenting, Kohn cites:

A publication by the Irish Department of Health and Children (which has been circulated and adopted by other organizations all over the world) offers ten examples to illustrate the concept of “emotional abuse.” Number two on the list, right after “persistent criticism, sarcasm, hostility, or blaming,” is “conditional parenting, in which the level of care shown to a child is made contingent on his or her behaviours or actions.”16

The implication is that loving our children and demanding obedience are not enough. We must show our innocent children unconditional positive regard. We must love them unconditionally — for who they are, not for what they do.

Kohn explains why “… Obedience isn’t always desirable.” Being too well behaved, and having an excessive need to please, can have serious emotional consequences. He cites:

[Leon Kuczynski and Grazyna Kochanska], writing in the journal Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, … point out that amazingly well-behaved children do what their parents want them to do, and become what their parents want them to become, but often at the price of losing themselves.17

He also reminded his readers of the early work of Carl Rogers:

Nearly half a century ago, the pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers offered an answer to the question “What happens when a parent’s love depends on what children do?” He explained that those on the receiving end of such love come to disown the parts of themselves that aren’t valued. Eventually, they regard themselves as worthy only when they act (or think or feel) in specific ways.18

Very well behaved children often lose themselves — that inner sense of who they were uniquely born to be — and create a “false self” whose worth and value is measured by how well their behaviour pleases others.

A certain level of resistance to parental authority is a good sign! Obedience is not all that it is cracked up to be, as Barbara Coloroso illustrates in her book Kids Are Worth It!, and Alfie Kohn notes:

Author Barbara Coloroso remarks that she’s often heard parents of teenagers complain, “He was such a good kid, so well behaved, so well dressed. Now look at him!” To this, she replies:

From the time he was young, he dressed the way you told him to dress; he acted the way you told him to act; he said the things you told him to say. He has been listening to somebody else tell him what to do…. He hasn’t changed. He’s still listening to somebody else tell him what to do. The problem is it isn’t you anymore; it’s his peers.19

The “Elf Tradition” is not a new tradition. It is an old tradition pretending to be new, dressed in elves’ clothing. It is rooted in what Alice Miller, in For Your Own Good, calls “poisonous pedagogy”, demanding obedience at any cost, manipulating children with the threat of punishment for non-compliance, and the promise of reward for compliance.

The “Elf Tradition” is sold as a tool for parents to parent conditionally. It promotes a negative, dark view of children as bad or “naughty”  — they must be watched at all times because they are complicit, “sneaky” like the elf. They will take advantage of you. Their parents must lie to them. They must obey their parents or else the elf will report them and they will be placed on the “naughty” list. To earn their parent’s love they must do as their parents say and earn the label “nice”. That judgment is made by a toy elf, that apparently is more important than the child because it is in Santa’s inner circle!

This so-called tradition is degrading for children and exploits their innocence. Children deserve better care than this.

There is no ‘quick fix’ for raising beautiful children who are so much more than just their behaviour: they are whole human beings who think and feel. They need to feel connected to their parents. They need to know that they are okay at any age. They need our unconditional love and to be held in high regard no matter what.

I prefer to trust Alfie Kohn:

To help our [children] to become ethical people, as opposed to people who merely do what they are told, we cannot merely tell them what to do.

“We have to help them figure out for themselves and with each other – how one ought to act. It is crucial that we overcome a preoccupation with getting compliance and instead involve our children in learning ethical principles.20

and Alice Miller:

For their development, children need the respect and protection of adults who take them seriously, love them, and honestly help them to become oriented in the world.21


1. Hatch, Amy (December 7, 2012). Elf on the Shelf: why so much hate?. Mom Stories.
2. Amy (November 30, 2012). Why I hate the Elf on the Shelf. Funny Is Family.
3. Tuttle, Kate (Dec 6 2012). You’re a creepy one, Elf on the Shelf. The Atlantic, online.
4. (retrieved Dec 17, 2012). Amazon best sellers: best pretend play. website
5. Darren Dahl (40878). The elf that stole Christmas. Inc. magazine, online.
6. Elf on the Shelf. Official website.
7. Customer review (December 12, 2011). Every elf has a price. online review
8. Nair, Andrea (December 6, 2012). Serious concerns with “the Elf on the Shelf”.
9. Greven, Philip (1990). Spare the Child. New York: Vintage Books. Amazon book link
10. Kohn, Alfie (2008). It’s not what we teach; it’s what they learn.
11. Kohn, Alfie (1999). Punished by Rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Co. Amazon book link
12. Miller, Alice (1996). The Drama of the Gifted Child: the search for the true self. New York: Basic Books. Amazon book link
13. Warneken, Felix, & Tomasello, Michael (2008). Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds. Developmental Psychology, Vol. 44, No. 6, 1785–1788. DOI: 10.1037/a0013860 Online PDF
14. Bronson, Po, & Merryman, Ashley (2009). NurtureShock: new thinking about children. New York: Twelve. Amazon book link
15. Kohn, Alfie (2006). Unconditional Parenting: moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. New York: Atria Books. Amazon book link
16. Department of Health and Children (1999). Children First: national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children, Definition of Emotional Abuse, Ch. 3.3.1 (ii), p.32. Dublin: Government of Ireland.
17. Kuczynski, Leon, & Kochanska, Grazyna (1990). Development of children’s noncompliance strategies from toddlerhood to age 5. Developmental Psychology, Vol. 26(3), 398–408. DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.26.3.398
18. Rogers, Carl R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships, as developed in the client-centered framework. Psychology: A Study of Science, Study I: Conceptual and Systematic, vol. 3, edited by Sigmund Koch. New York: McGraw Hill.
19. Coloroso, Barbara (2003). Kids Are Worth It!: raising resilient, responsible, compassionate kids. Toronto: Penguin Canada. Amazon book link
20. Kohn, Alfie (1996). Beyond Discipline.
21. Miller, Alice (1990). For Your Own Good: hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Amazon book link

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