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Let’s Bench The Elf on the Shelf

Is the Elf on The Shelf a dangerous parental crutch?

I wrote the following as a guest blogger for Justin Vacula and the Skeptic Ink Network. You can find the original post here, but I thought I should re-post it here for anyone who happened to miss it.

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 recently 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 even have one yourself. Most see it as fun and harmless and innocent, but I would like to argue it is not. It’s something that should be avoided at all costs.

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. But 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." As his ad on Amazon stays:

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“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.

Fun right? A little Christmas joy along with an easy way to keep the children behaving for about a month. What could possibly be wrong with this seemingly harmless practice? I say plenty.

I have argued against the Santa Claus lie – the practice of tricking your children into believing that Santa Claus is literally real – elsewhere (in 2009 and 2010 ). My argument is threefold. It’s a lie, it threatens your parental trustworthiness, and it encourages credulity. But The Elf on the Shelf is basically a steroid shot for the Santa Lie—a physical reminder of the Santa lie in your house for a whole month. So it should not be surprising that my objections to the practices surrounding The Elf on the Shelf are similar.

First, it most certainly is a lie. Of course, not all lies are morally wrong. Lies done for noble or monumental purposes are morally excusable, sometimes even morally praiseworthy. But the fun you have tricking your children into believing something false is not a noble cause; don't fool yourself – you're not saving any lives.

Second, your children rely on you to give them accurate information about the way the world is, and you should want them to trust and believe what you say. But finding out that you have been lying to them – and even been playing an elaborate joke on them (for example by moving the elf yourself but telling them it moves on its own) – has the possibility of significantly eroding their ability to trust you. What else might you be lying about, or tricking them into believing? (Think it's not a big deal? In some stories I have collected, children come to doubt God's existence after learning the truth about Santa; "If mom and dad are lying about Santa, they're probably lying about God too.” This is actually fairly good reasoning. Have you ever thought about how many characteristics the two characters share?)

Third, it promotes credulity – a gullibility and propensity to believe things that are false. Just like with Santa Claus, to get your children to believe The Elf on the Shelf is alive, you have to encourage them to turn off their critical thinking skills – don't question, don't doubt, just believe. This is not the kind of thing we want to encourage in our children; in fact, credulity is a major contributing factor to the decline of American civilization. As Hank Stuever put it in Tensel: A Search for America's Christmas Present:

“If a child has concluded...that it's impossible for a man in a flying sleigh to make it all the way around the world in one night, delivering elf made replicas of all the stuff you see in Target and Best Buy, then that's a child I would be happy to steer toward a voting booth when she's 18.  That's an American in search of facts. If, however, she goes on pretending to believe well into her teens (I encountered more than one such teenager in Frisco) because it makes her parents (and God) feel sweet and happy, then I become worried. That becomes an American willing to spend $100,000 on her “special day” wedding or who will believe without hard evidence that other countries harbor weapons of mass destruction when they don't.”

But I would like to add a fourth objection to all this Christmas lying—an objection to something that can be present in the Santa Claus lie as well, but is the main purpose of The Elf on the Shelf lie: goading your children into behaving with promises of future lavish reward. I'm not denying it is useful for this purpose. As one of my students told me about their older brother and his wife's Elf on the Shelf, "All they have to do is remind the kids that the elf is watching, and the fights and tantrums stop and they are perfectly behaved." I am arguing that, regardless of its effectiveness, the elf should go.

Now, don’t get me wrong, mild rewards in response to spontaneous positive behavior can be a good thing. Children develop good character with good habits and we want to encourage the development of those habits by sometimes rewarding good behavior when we see it. But stopping bad behavior with promises of future reward is completely different – and a terrible and harmful practice. First of all, it's just lazy parenting – the easiest, but worst, way to get your children to behave. Secondly, children need to learn self-control and to do the right thing for its own sake. But a child who behaves because The Elf on the Shelf is watching and will tell Santa—that child is learning the exact opposite: that how they behave should be dictated by the rewards they receive. And this is not unproblematic. What happens when these children grow up and discover that in the real world, it is lying and cheating that earns the most rewards? Now, I'm not saying that The Elf on the Shelf will encourage even more corruption in the business world – but I'm also not not saying that either.

Ironically, I most recently found evidence for my position in an article written by child psychologist Melinda Wenner Moyer (for Slate Magazine) where she argues in favor of the Santa-lie. (She thinks it’s okay because it encourages imagination. She’s wrong; it doesn’t. I’ve point out, elsewhere, why.) Although she is okay with the Santa-Lie in general, she emphatically points out that lying – and specifically the Santa lie – should not be used as a parental crutch.

“Though lying can be an awfully convenient parenting crutch—Sorry, sweetheart, but the police might arrest you if I let you have more candy so we better not—it’s generally best to keep it to a minimum, both to develop trust between yourself and your child and to lead by example…[but] sometimes, parents use Santa inappropriately, such as when they force their terrified kids to sit on Santa’s lap or when they use him primarily as a disciplinary threat—If you keep throwing pens at your sister, Santa will leave coal in your stocking.”

Obviously, the same point applies to The Elf on the Shelf, and since his primary use is as a disciplinarian threat, Moyer would clearly agree with the critique I have offered here.

I know I have friends and relatives who own and are using The Elf on the Shelf (I've seen your Facebook posts) and they're probably pretty upset with me right now. Please forgive me. I'm not saying you're bad parents. I'm just trying to encourage you – in fact, everyone – to think a little bit more critically before you fall for the next Christmas fad. And I'm not saying you shouldn't buy The Elf on the Shelf. In fact, go buy 40! They make cute decorations. I'm just saying they should not be used to trick your children. It's like Santa. It's not that Santa should be eliminated from Christmas, it's just that – like The Elf on the Shelf – he should not be used as prescribed.

David Kyle Johnson

Copyright 2012

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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