I agreed to an Elf on the Shelf when I was in a particularly vulnerable time. My oldest was in kindergarten, and I had just gone back to work after maternity leave for baby number 3.
He came home from school one day explaining excitedly about the elf that had arrived in his class and loudly proclaimed that we needed such an elf to help Santa be fully informed about the activities of his little sister.
To say that younger sister was hard to parent would be the understatement of the year- she was a full-throttle, hands-on little girl, and we had fallen off of our A-game with the arrival of new baby sister.
I had to agree that probably it would help to have someone provide some order in our house, and his request seemed pretty simple.
I had a couple of friends who had these elves, and I knew that this would be work, but also seemed open to making little guy’s wish come true. Elf arrived later that week and has plagued my holidays ever since.
The first challenge with the elf is the fact that you have to remember that he is supposed to move every evening to indicate he traveled and had a chat with Santa. There have been many times in our history when the children worried that there was something wrong with the elf due to his lack of movement.
On one occasion, I realized that I had forgotten once again to move the elf, and decided to move him while the kids were in another room. They came in and almost caught me, when I instinctively threw him to the floor.
I stated that I had thought it was a bird in the house, and accidentally knocked him down. We agreed to quietly exit the room, and see if he was able to get to a safe place. I dawdled on the way out and got him to a better place- the kids were awed by this confirmation of his magic.
After a few years with one elf, I was informed by some well-meaning person that we needed to have the same number of elves as we do children so that the elf could travel down the family line.
It was hard enough to come up with the memory of movement of one elf, but then our house became populated by two more elves over time. I was tempted to involve them in some pretty wild schemes, but let’s face it- I am not at my most creative at night after my kids have gone to bed.
I have heard ladies at the bus stop describe elves that undecorated the Christmas tree and trashed rooms in the house, but this sounds like a pretty evil thing to do to your own home. One acquaintance said that their elf switches all of their white lights to colored ones- so much work!
After a few years, my oldest child became aware of what the whole story was, and was dying to let his little sisters in on the whole truth. As a desperate “plea,” I “offered” to put him in charge of all elf activities.
He was thrilled and has a whole lot more energy and creativity for this process than I ever did. Who knows, maybe one day we will have an elf that does some extra decorating?
The second challenge with the elf is that they are supposed to be a conduit to Santa informing on the behavior of children.
Parents threaten, elves leave threatening notes, and the children are supposed to be motivated toward better behavior. Over the last few weeks, I have heard several stories of ways that parents can up the ante to threaten their kids.
The first method is changing a friend’s name in your contacts to “Santa” so that you can have text message interactions to encourage their behavior or threaten punishments/loss of presents.
This seems benign enough, and in pretty consistent presentation to the elf, but it concerns me that it is another extension of a pretty elaborate lie, and could get tripped up when the friend also needs to text about coffee or real life issues.
The idea that was floated past me and downright disturbed me was wrapping empty boxes and throwing these boxes away or in the fireplace when kiddo is acting out.
A parent (not a client) gleefully shared with me that her child had been downright inconsolable when they used this approach. The challenge with all of these punitive approaches is the fact that they place the emphasis of the holiday in entirely the wrong place- attention to negatives rather than celebrating positives.
There are a few ways that parents can start to move the attention back to a positive place. Number one, try to focus on the great behaviors you see rather than using Santa as a source of punishment.
“Using time to focus on gratitude over the holidays can create a sense of attention to what really matters.”
My youngest spent much of the day doing chores yesterday so that she could earn money to buy presents for her siblings. I over-paid her because I was thrilled she wanted to buy presents.
When we went shopping, however, only 1/3 of the money was actually spent on presents for others. I focused on what she did pick for her siblings rather than being frustrated that she also spent money on herself.
Truth is, I still buy things for myself when I shop for others. My mother-in-law also introduced a book about collecting straw to make a cozy manger. You place straw in the manger whenever you do something nice for someone else. The kids have been pretty excited about this opportunity.
Using time to focus on gratitude over the holidays can create a sense of attention to what really matters. There are lots of calendars that provide prompts, but it can be nice to keep a shared family list.
Mount a big sheet of craft paper somewhere on a wall or refrigerator, and write the list. You can use different colors and remind the kids that it can be really simple things like having a good cookie or hearing your favorite song.
Lastly, if you really feel like your kids are lacking in appreciation or positive behaviors, consider volunteering someplace appropriate for their age. We will be participating in hosting and feeding the homeless on cold nights, which should help to crack a little of their holiday entitlement.
My hope is that the kids will reflect on some of the nice things we did, rather than all of the ways that I threatened punishments.