It’s time to ditch the Elf on the Shelf
It’s that time of year. The time of year where stressed out, exhausted parents begin calling in the man in red in a last ditch effort to manage their child’s unruly behaviour. There are threats to call Santa, send back presents, or cancel the whole thing entirely! Children are told that they’ll end up on the naughty list, receive coal in their stockings, or of course, that the Elf on the Shelf (who is always watching them) will report back to the North Pole to let Santa know about their “naughty” behaviour. There’ll be no presents for them this year if they continue to behave this way.
And listen, I get it. It’s a hectic time of the year. Many parents are stressed and overwhelmed. And compliant children who do what they’re told make the whole thing run more smoothly. It reduces our stress. And it’s all just harmless fun, right? And easy way to ensure compliance at this time of year and to keep kids on their best behaviour.
Except it’s not just harmless fun for our children.
Here’s why we need to stop using the Elf on the Shelf as a behaviour modification strategy:
1. It’s stressful for kids
Many of the expectations we have of kids – particularly at Christmas time – are unrealistic. Be quiet, don’t touch that, use your manners, don’t complain, be grateful, no fighting, stop crying and for the love of all things Christmas, don’t you dare ruin this for everyone else! Meanwhile, we have disrupted their routines, overloaded them with sensory information, put them into unfamiliar social situations, and are schlepping them from activity to activity, often on less sleep than usual. It’s too much. They simply cannot meet our expectations.
And when kids cannot meet our expectations, they become overwhelmed. Their stress load increases. The fight/flight/freeze response kicks in, the thinking brain shuts down and we see increasingly impulsive behaviour. Meltdowns, tears, aggression, defiance, avoidance, arguments and problems with impulse control. They may not be saying the words, but they are telling us loud and clear – I am not coping.
And all of this is happening while under the constant threat of evaluation. With the Elf on the Shelf watching and waiting for them to mess up. Waiting to tell Santa all about their “naughty” behaviour. Having someone evaluate you and your behaviour for an entire month is unbelievably stressful. When we put this pressure on kids in an attempt to control their behaviour, we actually increase their stress and therefore make it even LESS likely that they are able to meet our demands.
2. It doesn’t lead to lasting positive behaviour change
Now at this stage you may be thinking – but it does work! My child picks up all their toys, says thank you to grandma and helps me pack the dishwasher when the Elf is watching. And yes, making threats to cancel that fun Christmas activity or report back to Santa might result in compliance in the moment. But this compliance is fear based. Your child is doing what you asked because they are afraid of the outcome if they don’t. Research has shown us, time and again, that fear is a poor teacher. We cannot learn when we are afraid. We are literally unable to access the area of our brain responsible for learning when feel scared.
Which means what you’re seeing from your child is not learning at all. It’s simply their brain protecting them from danger. Your child is still stressed. But instead of displaying that behaviour outwardly, they have internalised it. They are trying to protect their relationship with you, who they love more than anything, by hiding that stress and holding all of their big feelings inside.
The stress doesn’t go away though. It just takes on a different form. Children who learn that their big feelings should be kept inside can become people pleasers. They can experience anxiety and social difficulties as they grow, learning that the needs of others are far more important than theirs. So yes, it might lead to short term change, but the long term outcome is often not positive.
3. It doesn’t teach kids skills they need to do better
Another reason that behaviour modification strategies like the Elf on the Shelf don’t lead to long term positive change, is that they don’t teach kids the skills they need to do better next time. If your child’s behaviour is a reflection of the level of stress they are under, then what they need is not consequences for their behaviour, but strategies for managing their stress.
They need to learn how to identify emotions in their body. They need the language to talk to us about their emotions. And they need to be taught HOW to manage stress. What can they do when they feel stressed? What helps them return to calm? Who can they ask for help?
We also need to remember as the adults, that these skills are developmental. That kids are still learning, and that these skills take many, many years to develop. We cannot expect more from kids than they are physically capable of doing. The sooner we can accept this as parents, the sooner we reduce the stress for everyone.
4. It damages your connection with your child
When we focus on changing behaviour, and we link “good” behaviour to receiving gifts, rewards, or accolades, we teach children two things. That their worth is determined by what they DO or achieve, and that we behave well and do the right thing because there is something in it for us at the end. We also teach children that WE value what they do and how they behave above all else. This leads to children who do not feel free to be their authentic selves. Children who do not feel seen or heard by us and children who do not feel they can come to us for help when they need it. This does not lead to a trusting, connected or safe relationship with our children.
So how do we change their behaviour if we don’t use the Elf on the Shelf?
Well, first of all, we stop focusing on changing behaviour! Yes, I know that sounds counterintuitive, but your child’s behaviour is not really the issue. Your child’s behaviour is only a symptom of what is really going on. It is a reflection of how they are feeling inside and of the level of arousal and stress they are experiencing in that moment. The real question to ask is, “How do I help them feel better?” So here’s what to focus on instead:
Much of what we consider misbehaviour in children is really STRESS behaviour. It is only occurring because the stress response has been activated. So if you want to see a change in behaviour, you need to focus on reducing your child’s stress. There are many reasons your child could be stressed – physical, emotional, social, and even cognitive reasons. So start with the basics. Ensure your child is getting enough sleep. Enough nourishing food. Drinking enough water. Keep things as predictable as you can for your child and tell them in advance what to expect in a situation. Limit screens if they are sensitive to them. Be mindful of any sensory difficulties your child might be experiencing. And schedule in plenty of down time.
Adjust your Expectations
Many of the behaviour challenges we experience with our kids could be solved if we only adjusted our own expectations. Children are not mini adults. They are children. With immature nervous systems and brains that are still developing. They cannot control their impulses yet. Rather than putting them in situations which are difficult or overwhelming and then expecting them to meet our demands, we need to think about how to adjust the environment to meet them where they are at. How can we adjust our expectations to meet their age or stage of development? What supports can we put in place to help them? How can we set them up for success? This is our responsibility, not theirs.
Focus on Connection
The most important tool you have in your parenting toolbox is YOU. Children feel safe and secure when they feel connected to us. The most important thing we can do to reduce stress for our kids and help them feel better, is BE with them. Really truly see them and listen to them and help them feel understood. Instead of making threats, let your child know that you understand how they feel. That you know this is difficult. Co-regulate with them. Allow space for their emotions and make it clear that all emotions are welcome. Ultimately, kids who feel safe and connected to you -kids who are well regulated – will behave well. No threats required.
Still want to incorporate Elf on the Shelf in your Christmas traditions this year? Try these ideas instead…
Make it fun!
If your kids (and you) really enjoy your Elf on the Shelf, there’s no need to get rid of it entirely. You can still enjoy your Elf and make lots of magical Christmas memories without your Elf reporting back to Santa. Your elf can simply visit and have some fun! Hide it in funny spots, play some fun practical jokes, have it deliver your advent activity each morning or even get a little mischievous!
Instead of reporting back to Santa each night, your Elf on the Shelf could bring a new act of kindness for your kids to complete each day. Our Mindful Little Kindness Cards are a great resource to use for this and many of the mamas in our community have been having lots of fun with theirs! It’s a great way to teach kids about kindness and instil some positive values like generosity, empathy, responsibility and gratitude.
Your Elf on the Shelf really doesn’t have to DO anything. Why not just play with him? He’s really just a toy after all. Take him on adventures, introduce him to other toys, and let your child’s imagination lead the way. After all, play is one of the best stress reducers around – for kids and grown ups!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.