I know very little about this Santa helper. When my children were small, this elf hadn’t been “invented.” Instead, myths circulated at preschool, kindergarten and children’s holiday events about the magical powers of Santa, with some adults reinforcing he was “watching to see if you were naughty or nice!” I remember an incident with my daughter and a preschool friend. As they sat eating lunch, giggling and chatting, my daughter spilled her milk. Her friend glanced up at the ceiling, as a serious, almost scared, look came over her face. She exclaimed: “Santa is watching you. He’s angry you spilled your milk, so now he’s going to put coal in your stocking!” My daughter collapsed in tears. Although I quickly did some “damage control,” my 4-year-old’s distress lingered for several days. Speaking with her friend’s mother, I wanted to understand their beliefs. She explained that they threatened the wrath of Santa, God, the devil, to keep their children behaving well. Yikes!

I suspect most parents identify Santa Claus as a positive, not punitive, character. Now that some have acquired the tradition of the “elf on the shelf,” this little helper has different roles for different families. I’ve heard him described as a “mischievous, playful” addition during December. Others have bemoaned the work of moving this creature around each night, so the children find him in a different place each morning. However, some parents apparently find him a useful tool for enforcing good behavior in their children, wishing they had such a tool throughout the year. My understanding of the elf’s role: “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.” Thus, any time a child misbehaves, he’s reminded the elf is keeping an eye on him. So what could possibly be the problem with such a tradition?

Personally, I have no problem with helping children believe, for although there comes a time they realize you’ve been providing the gifts, there’s a certain magic for children holding on to those beliefs. My own childhood, and that of my children’s, was never tainted by these apparent “untruths”; thus, I wholeheartedly disagree with those professionals who decry supporting these myths. Whether or not you keep Santa alive in your family, there is no right or wrong, nor good or bad, to this; rather, each family must decide what works best for them and choose accordingly.

However, I do have a problem with wielding power over our children to enforce good behavior, manipulating their belief in mythological characters, such as Santa, the tooth fairy, or the Easter bunny. Threatening them that Santa or the “elf on the shelf” is watching them, to stop the sibling rivalry or the meltdown, is damaging. It might be helpful in the moment to curtail unwanted behavior; yet, with promises of future reward, we’re missing the valuable connection that sustains their faith. This is a harmful practice, being the easiest, yet worst, way to get our children to behave the way we want. We expect our children to acquire intrinsic control, doing what’s right for its own sake, rather than behaving because The Elf on the Shelf is watching and will report any behavioral missteps to Santa. Yet, this punitive approach teaches them the exact opposite: to behave according to the extrinsic rewards they will receive. 

We want to maintain the holiday magic and strong connection with our children. That means we won’t get the “reprieve” for the month of December by exerting threats of rewards and punishment through the elf’s influence with Santa. The Elf can certainly be a playful addition to any household. I don’t think this myth is intended to manipulate good behavior, or to help acquire as many gifts as possible; rather, it represents the joy of giving, in all its forms. It’s about imagination and magic, it’s about love.

Consider what you want to teach your children with whatever your holiday tradition might be and the values important to bestow. Although the Elf on the Shelf can be a very tempting parenting tool in the heat of a meltdown, it’s important not to use him to trick or manipulate children. We certainly don’t want to eliminate Santa or the Elf on the Shelf from Christmas! Instead, seeing the magic through the eyes of our children, keeping the spirit of giving and love alive, is what the holiday is about…. And believing!

Wishing you a holiday of special connection with family and friends.