The Pros and Cons of Elf on the Shelf

Happy holidays! Many of you who celebrate Christmas have already unpacked your Elf on the Shelf and begun plotting the hijinks your little guy will get into for the ’gram. But is Elf on the Shelf really for everyone?

While he’s loved by many, there are those who find the steely-eyed sprite manipulative or even—dare we say?—creepy. Let’s take a moment to think about the pros and cons of Santa’s little spy.

A Cute and Cherished Tradition

Now don’t get us wrong: We can see the value in creating a holiday tradition for your household. And, of course, we’ve all seen the pictures on social media of the little cuties bathing in marshmallow baths, sleeping in tissue boxes, and playing mini games of Twister with My Pretty Pony. A lot of families think their elf adds that extra dash of Christmas magic to their holiday season. “My kids absolutely love it! It’s such a fun experience for them in preparation for Christmas,” says Antoinette McCune, a mother of three. “It’s also a fun, and sometimes stressful, game for us as parents to try and think of new ways to hide our little elf.” 

And let’s not forget that the elf encourages kids to be on their best behavior the month of December, which can certainly make parenting a little bit easier. “My son loves it! It works to remind him that Santa is watching if he is being good,” says Frank Martinez, a father of two. After all, a big part of the Santa lore is that ‘he sees you when you’re sleeping,’ whether that be through good old-fashioned omniscience or a scout elf.

(S)elfish Motives?

But not everyone seems to agree that the elf is adorable. “I was a nanny for a nine-year-old boy who loved his Elf on the Shelf, but his parents misplaced it. The parents didn’t think anything of it, but every day after school he would come home and search the whole house for his elf. After seeing it wasn’t there, he assumed he was disliked by the elf,” says Sadie Sparks. “Trying to instill positive morals on a child by tricking them also seems very counterproductive to society.”

Though it may seem a bit harsh, others also feel it’s self-interested for parents to use the Elf to teach morals. And, they add, it’s an approach that may backfire: The concept of being constantly under surveillance could scare the child or teach him that he should only behave when there is some tangible benefit to him, like getting presents.

“It really depends on the level of trust in the parent-child relationship. I definitely valued my privacy and my mom respected it to a degree,” says Brandom Klemm, a chef and pizza maker who grew up with the elf. “I don’t know how I feel about kids being afraid of being themselves because they believe they’re being watched at all times.” Now, that’s not entirely the Elf’s fault; as previously mentioned, legend has it that Santa’s constantly watching kids. But something about having that abstract concept materialized and in the home doesn’t quite sit well with everyone.

A Less Invasive Elf

So what can we parents do if we still want a snazzy little add-on to our holiday celebrations, but one that doesn’t instill in our child a fear of being watched at all times? Well, we could try repurposing our Elf on the Shelf.

“I had an alternate version in my house growing up. It was called the Kindness Elf and my mom did a pretty good job of making it a positive thing,” says Lauren Farrell, a student at New York University. “It was generally kept in public spaces within the house and every day I had to find the elf and it was always holding a different card that challenged me to do something kind for someone that day.”

Elf Alternative

If the elf doesn’t quite match your aesthetic (even though felt is so in right now) you can always give Reindeer in Here a chance: It’s a plush toy children are meant to bond with during the month of December. It’s similar to the elf, except children can touch and play with it, and its purpose is to listen to what the child really wants for Christmas and then inform Santa. “It’s not about watching a child, or intimidating a child,” says Adam Reed, an author, television producer, and creator of Reindeer in Here. “It’s about empowering and creating a positive Christmas tradition that families can look back to.”

Reindeer in Here is also designed with one antler shorter than the other and has a companion book that features a cast of sidekicks with visible differences, such as a cross-eyed penguin and a polar bear with a bit of a bald patch. “The true message is being different is normal, not being different is special,” Reed says. “This book is about getting to the heart of why each child is unique and different and finding what their true Christmas wishes are.” 

Make Room for a Mensch

But let’s not forget that the holiday season is more than just Christmas. For all you guys and gals who celebrate Hanukkah, there’s a Mensch on the Bench—a Jewish man sitting on a bench—just for you. “It’s tough to be Jewish during the month of December. Already there’s Christmas music on every radio, and there’s decorations up, and all your friends have trees. You’re already feeling a little left out, and then Elf on the Shelf comes along and now we’re seeing that on social media as well,” says Neal Hoffman, creator of Mensch on a Bench. “There was an opportunity for what would be a Jewish alternative.”

Enter the Mensch (which translated literally means a person of integrity and honor). It’s a plush toy that watches over the menorah at night and encourages more family time and engagement with pre-existing Hanukkah traditions such as playing dreidel and eating latkes (potato pancakes) and gelt (chocolate coins).

The Mensch also places an emphasis on charity and doing good, as the name would imply. “Mensches encourage kids to do one good deed,” Hoffman says. “One of the rules for having a mensch is that on one night of Hanukkah you give presents to someone in need rather than get presents yourself.”

Whether you love your elf (or mensch) or wish it would just stop staring at you, here’s to a happy and wholesome holiday season with your family.


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