Is The Elf on the Shelf Shaming Kids?

Elf on the Shelf

Written by: Stephanie Fox, LCSW, LSCSW, MSW

The Elf

Every December, I see parents online proudly boasting about their elves cutely displayed in mischief. If you are not familiar with the book, The Elf on the Shelf is a representative for Santa. He is there to remind children that Santa is always watching and to make sure they are being “good.” Ideally, families who participate in this Christmas tradition are encouraging good behaviors from their children so they can be on the nice list and earn Christmas presents. 

The Problem

Children desire so deeply to be “good”. Despite this desire, children who struggle with mental health needs (such as anxiety, trauma, attachment, depression, etc.) often present with impulsive and disruptive behaviors as a way to self-regulate. These behaviors make it difficult for children to comply, which is what most adults really mean when they are wanting children to be “good.”  It is not that these children won’t comply, it is often that they can’t comply. When children are presented with an expectation of “good behavior,” and routinely cannot meet these expectations, they feel shamed. If this is happening daily, we are reinforcing that sense of shame. Even if your child does not struggle with mental health challenges, throwing tantrums, making messes, testing boundaries, and crying are developmentally appropriate behaviors for young children. Using the Elf to enforce “good” behaviors can be unrealistic and often developmentally inappropriate for children.  

Gift or Reward

Ask yourself, “Are the holidays a reward for good behaviors or are they a gift?” Most of us would answer that Holiday Celebrations are a gift, part of a larger traditions passed down through generations. A gift is given from unconditional love, while a reward is given after certain conditions are met. The Elf presents a condition: “Do good, and you’ll get presents.” Rewarding reinforces a cycle of doing what others ask of us, even when we don’t want to, in order to get a reward and feel better about ourselves. Loving children with no conditions teaches them to place their worth in themselves and not with others. It reinforces that their behavior does not make them worthy or unworthy of love.

Some Alternatives:

If you are still itching to partake in some holiday fun, here a few options.

  • The Kindness Elves present with a message of gratitude, compassion, service to others, empathy, and kindness. You can find more out about them here.
  • The North Pole Ninjas who encourage daily, small acts of kindness for others. You can find these available through many online retail shops.
  • Finally, if you still feel a desire to use those cute little elves, I would encourage you make the experience an opportunity to play and enjoy time together – no strings attached.

This holiday season, I would encourage you to let go of the “nice list.” Make the holidays about giving gifts of unconditional love and connecting with each other.