The Potential Negative Effects of 'The Elf on the Shelf' - Mike Hackett

The Potential Negative Effects of ‘The Elf on the Shelf’ by Mike Hackett


bad news elf on shelf

Apart from it being a huge marketing success story and a constant feature of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds across the country this time of year, what are the potential implications of making the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ a new Christmas tradition?


Imagine for a moment if the Irish Government came up with a new initiative, destined to become an annual event designed to cut crime by ensuring its citizens are good citizens. To that end, once a year, for a month, they would hire observers to reside in homes across the country and report to a central authority every night which would then adjudicate on citizens behaviour. Good citizens will be rewarded, bad citizens will be punished. These observers would be mute and unresponsive, move around every night, have unrestricted access to private and public spaces and engage in ‘mischievous’ behaviours which may themselves break the rules of good citizenship without consequence. Citizens are threatened with withholding or cutting state services if they are deemed bad, and various benefits for being good. Those who are bad and are punished receive the label ‘bad citizen’ until the following year’s observance.


What are your thoughts and reactions to the above scenario? How do you feel about this initiative? How likely would you be to actually change your behaviour rather than simply moderate it for the month of surveillance? Would you be more likely as a result to understand how to be a good citizen, or learn the rules to avoid a bad citizen label? How would you feel about the double standard by which the observer can behave ‘mischievously’ without consequence but you must follow the rules?


Enter the phenomenon of the ‘Elf on the Shelf’. Let’s take a look at what the advertising material says about the nature and function of this “new best member of the family”.

  • “Add a new best member to the family this Christmas with this original Scout Elf from the Elf on the Shelf. This scout Elf reports to Santa Claus each night to let him know which kids have been naughty or nice.”
  • “Maybe they got into some mischief during the night and have been playing with your little boys and girls toys, puzzles and games!”
  • “Every night this Scout Elf will return to the North Pole to say whether your children has been naughty or nice. Santa takes that information every night and decides if you're getting presents, gifts or old coal this year.”
  • “You can tell Santa's Official Scout Elves apart from other cheap plush elf soft dolls at the North Pole because they arrive in their official solid red jumpsuit with their very own educational storybook called The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition”


Apart from the overt marketing ploy in the last point, consider this blurb in the light of the fictitious scenario above and compare it to the message we give to children as part of the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ phenomenon. Even though the motivation to have such an annual event seems good on the outside, it is not that simple.


The role of parent is probably one of the most difficult and rewarding, requiring a wide range of skills and an almost infinite amount of patience and love. The challenge of balancing work, financial, relationship, health and parenting demands can lead to parents employing outdated parenting methods as in the case of punishment/reward approaches designed to control behaviour. These approaches use something called ‘external control methods’ which set standards of good conduct outside of the child in the form of an authority (in this case Santa stands in for parents as the arbiter of good/bad). However, these external control methods can have long lasting consequences for children including lowering their self-esteem, reducing their motivation to learn the skills of good conduct and create barriers between parents and children. Instead, parents can employ ‘internal control methods’ designed to teach children how to ‘be good’ rather than simply impart rules for what is good/bad. These emphasise cooperation and values such as kindness and understanding as traits which are intrinsically good as opposed to desire for reward or fear of external punishment for bad behaviour.


This then requires parents to reflect on how they are using the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ in their specific family context and whether the use of such an apparently fun and playful character is really a veiled means of external behaviour control. Like any tool or approach, these are not necessarily positive or negative in themselves, but instead how they are used. Perhaps instead of the current narrative of the ‘tradition’, it is worth considering how the Elf can be used a tool to teach children about the values parents are trying to instil at Christmas e.g. kindness, gratitude, care for those less fortunate and gift giving as just one expression of kindness and care for others. Is it possible to re-brand the playful, bright, funny, mischievous character to one of helper (of parents and others as they are helper to Santa), guide (to good behaviour), teacher of positive values (kindness etc.) and one that emphasises the importance of playfulness, connection and co-operation at Christmastime? How can parents and children co-operate to think of creative ways in which they can use the Elf to help others, rather than see it as a poorly behaved spy in the family camp? Essentially, how can they harness the power of fun and creativity instead of make-believe and fantasy alone.


In the recent past, the wooden spoon was for a whole generation of Irish children, the symbol of threat of punishment and perhaps today, the smiling, blue-eyed elf doll has become a brighter more tinselled but astute means of exercising behaviour control through surveillance, threat of punishment and labelling. But as parents, it is possible to use tools like the elf more effectively with a little awareness, a little kindness and a little creative thought. In the right hands and for the right reasons, the potential of such tools to teach children the essential skills of being decent humans is available in a new way! And after all, isn’t that more in keeping with the true spirit of Christmas?


Positive uses:

  • Inspiring creativity, fun and engagement with parents – a fun co-operative game for all the family with which to develop core family values.
  • A tool to help children learn and practice kindness, cooperation, gratitude, and demonstrating care through e.g. giving to others.
  • Shifting a focus on rewarding them as their motivation for ‘being good’ to one of being good for its own sake.


Negative uses:

  • Using the doll as a way to control your child’s behaviour by inducing in them fear the consequences of their behaviour.
  • Using an external authority to decide on right and wrong rather than helping children develop an internal sense of values.
  • To kids, adults are to be trusted as their source of knowing from authority. If you tell you child that this elf comes to life every night, watches you, reports what it thinks is bad behaviour to Santa so as to keep your behaviour in check, what else do your kids begin to mistrust in your words? The monster under the bed?




Aebersold, C. V. (2019). Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition. Retrieved 4 December 2019, from Amazon Elf on the Shelf

Primason, R. (2004). CHOICE PARENTING: A more connecting, less controlling way to manage any child behavior problem. New York: iUniverse.


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