Updated: Dec 17, 2020
The Elf on the Shelf, a toy based on a children’s book published in 2005, is a fun idea that many families have added to their Christmas traditions. When a child names the Elf, it magically comes to life each night between Thanksgiving and Christmas to report back to Santa about the child’s behavior. It then returns to the home to a different spot than the night before, but the child must not touch it or it might lose its magic.
Dr. Nicholas J. Westers, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern in Dallas, TX, discusses the potential psychological impact of the Elf on the Shelf tradition.
One viewpoint is that it is a lie that threatens children's trust in their parents, encourages gullibility rather than critical thinking, and teaches children that they should follow rules only to get rewards (gifts on Christmas) rather than because it is the right thing to do.
Another viewpoint is that believing in Santa and taking part in the Elf on the Shelf can encourage creativity and imagination. This depends on how “imagination” is defined. Some argue that imagination requires pretending and to pretend that the Elf on the Shelf comes to life at night would require knowing that it does not actually do so.
Many others have a broader definition of imagination that includes pretending but does not
require it. This involves believing in the magic of the Elf or, even if there are doubts, simply wondering about the possibilities of the Elf coming to life and what it might do each night.
Despite these different views about the Elf on the Shelf, a family's reasons behind it and their overall values and beliefs are more important: If the primary reason is to add more magic or tradition to the Christmas season then the Elf on the Shelf might be a fun way to do this. However, if parents feel pressure to keep up with other families by matching or one-upping ideas from social media – or if what was supposed to be a source of joy becomes more of a burden – then maybe the Elf on the Shelf should pack up and return to the North Pole.
Some families choose to have their Elf on the Shelf serve an even greater purpose, such as assigning charitable activities for their child to complete for others.
If the main motive is to manage a child’s behavior (“The Elf on the Shelf is going to tell Santa how bad you are being”), then the child might feel it is not his or her behavior that is being labeled as “bad” but him or her as an individual. If parents do call on the Elf to report to Santa, it should be used much more often to reinforce good behavior rather than to report problem behavior. Using the Elf as a threat for punishment (no presents) may scare kids and be the opposite of the goal of using the Elf to bring joy.