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To “Elf on the Shelf” or not?

As the Christmas holiday season takes off some families begin the tradition of hosting a Christmas scout elf, also known as the Elf on the Shelf. This custom has sparked a debate among households as to the merits of having such a tradition. Some argue that they don’t like the idea of the Elf essentially tattling to Santa all the wrong the children have done each day, some argue it’s harmless fun, and others find it cumbersome to move the elf each day and stress over the various shenanigans their Elf will get into.

For those that aren’t familiar with the Elf on the Shelf tradition here’s the cliff-notes version. A scout Elf, who works for Santa, visits your household each day. He or she makes a game of it and finds a new hiding place from which he or she sits back and observes the children for the day. The book that comes with your Elf explains that he or she is there to observe and to listen to what your kids may want tell to him or her. Each night, the Elf flies back to the North Pole to let Santa know what he or she observed (the good, the bad, and the ugly). The Elf continues this duty until Christmas Eve where Santa arrives and takes the Elf back home until next year.

"Color a picture for your sister!"

So, many families wonder if they should go down the rabbit hole and start the tradition in their household. The answer is, it depends. It depends on what your intentions are for starting it in the first place. Do you want it to be a fun family activity? Is it supposed to help keep the kids in line through the holidays? Do you enjoy being crafty and this is another extension of that?


I won’t tell you what you should do you in your home. But, I can tell you what we do in ours. We do host a scout Elf. We do not emphasize the role of ‘behavior reporter’ but treat her like a friend who visits for the holidays. Joy, our elf, visits each year and marks the start of the Christmas season for our family. Our intention for bringing an Elf into our home was to create a fun family activity. We made the choice not to focus on the reporting side of things because we didn’t want to create the environment of only behaving positively because they are being watched. Our expectation is that one makes the admirable choice because that’s what morally right, not because there’s a reward at the end of the rainbow. Another reason is, threatening “If you act out, Joy is going to tell Santa and then you won’t get any presents!”, sets the precedence of delayed punishment. Which, as research shows us, punishment is less effective (I didn’t say NOT effective, just less) than reward for creating lasting behavior change, so delayed punishment is even more futile. Think about it, when are you most motivated? When you can see the reward on the horizon or when you have to flip a few pages in the calendar to find it? The same is true for punishment. So, our introduction to the Elf was that she’s here to visit each day until Christmas Eve. She lives in the North Pole with Santa, so each night she returns home, and then comes back each morning. We told our girls that they can talk to her and she can bring messages to Santa if they want. We told them that, just like we talk about our days together, she and Santa talk about their days. We don’t go into anything more than that.

We use Joy as an extension of promoting our family values. She provides activities for the girls to work on together and emphasizes things like teamwork and creativity (all the mushy stuff you’d expect for the holidays). Though, she has been known to go fishing for Swedish fish.


I think when it comes to beginning a family tradition of any sort, it’s important to identify what your intentions are for the tradition and to ask yourself how does it fit into your family values? And will it build family connection?

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