One Mom explains why you won’t find Santa’s little helper spying on her kids.
Every December, parents can be found scrambling—in so many gift-wrapped, sugar-encrusted, gingerbread- and peppermint-flavored ways—to infuse the Christmas season with a little extra spirit. We don’t just want our kids to have a happy holiday; we want them to believe in things they can’t see, and know that the world is a place full of love and magic.
In the last several years, one Christmas tradition has promised to help parents do exactly that. The Elf on the Shelf set (with picture book and doll) can be found in every store as soon as Christmas music starts playing over the loudspeakers, and it seems like nearly every child-filled home has one of these ubiquitous elves watching over them during the holidays.
Except mine. I don’t do Elf on the Shelf with my kids, because even though it promises to serve up a healthy dose of Christmas magic, I’m worried about the real message it sends.
The Elf’s story is simple: Arriving as a scout from the North Pole, he (or she) finds a spot in your house to observe your daily activities, then flies back home every night to report on them. It’s the parents’ job to make sure little Snowball or Jubilee winds up in a different spot every morning before the kids wake up, to maintain the illusion that magic has allowed the Elf to travel around the world while everyone was sleeping.
Of course, the Elf can focus mostly on the good things your family does, but it’s made clear in the book and promotional materials that his purpose is to help Santa manage the official Naughty and Nice lists. In other words, the elf serves as an incentive to your kids to be “good” during the holiday season, or else their naughty behavior will reported to Santa.
Ever since my oldest son, now seven, was big enough to understand what happens at Christmas, the idea of a Naughty and Nice list has made me uncomfortable. When kids misbehave, it’s often in response to something in their environment. They’re tired or hungry, scared or stressed or confused. This is especially true for little kids, but even as mine grow older, I find it still applies. I don’t always respond with patience and understanding when my kids act out (far from it!), but I know my job is to teach them how to manage their big emotions—not label those emotions as inherently “bad” or “good.”
To tell my overtired, overstimulated two-year-old that he’s going on the naughty list when he’s having a tantrum feels unfair. To tell my seven-year-old that Santa won’t be bringing him any toys because he won’t clean his room or finish his schoolwork seems ineffective. What happens when Christmas is over, and I can’t use Santa as motivation anymore? If I want to parent consistently, I need a disciplinary system that works 12 months out of the year, not just one.
And what about following through on those threats if my kids don’t turn their behavior around? I’ve heard stories of parents who “cancelled” Christmas for kids who acted poorly, but I have no intention of actually withholding presents from my children. I don’t want to be that parent, and I don’t want to have that kind of Christmas. However, I’m a proponent of saying what I mean: if I tell my kids they’re going on the Naughty list for not sharing their toys or not using good manners, what does it mean when Christmas arrives and there are gifts under the tree anyway? I worry that kind of inconsistency would be confusing and would set a bad precedent for how consequences are handled in our house.
Either way, promising a visit from Santa to encourage “good” behavior from my kids feels manipulative. More importantly, it feels like the exact opposite of the Christmas spirit I find myself chasing every year. I don’t want my kids to view the holiday as a transaction. If I behave, Santa brings me presents. If I don’t, I get nothing.
Instead of making Santa and his watchful elves a part of my parenting in December, I talk to my kids about all the gifts—material and otherwise—the season has to offer. I emphasize charity and forgiveness and hope, all of which can be freely given and received without conditions. I tell my kids that we don’t celebrate Christmas because we are perfectly well-behaved people. We don’t give each other gifts because we have gone an entire month without making mistakes, getting angry, being selfish, or feeling grouchy. We are humans and sometimes we do human things, but we love each other through all of it—unconditionally. Christmas is a lovely time to remember that.
So if you come to my house this season, you won’t find a North Pole Elf sitting on any of my shelves. I don’t want my kids to think they are only deserving of the magic of Christmas if they have been “good.” I put presents for my kids under our tree to show them that they are loved no matter who they are, what they’ve said or done, or how they’ve behaved.
I think there’s an awful lot of Christmas spirit to be found in that.