Santa is an amazing invention. Originally this jolly old elf was a version of St Nicolas bringing trinkets and fruit to children to celebrate the birth of Christ but as time went on he morphed in Santa Claus the all-seeing, all-knowing, arbiter of naughty or nice. The red faced, white bearded man who puts toddlers into fits when they are put on his lap. The same man who showers children with presents on Christmas morning.
Parents for decades have used Santa as a tool to conscript their children to behave, threatening the ‘naughty’ list or ‘coal in their stockings’ if they don’t shape up. That has always struck me as strange, even when I was a kid myself. Perhaps it was because my parents were strict to begin with but the threat of some elf not bringing presents was laughable compared to disappointing my parents or incurring their wrath. Santa though has some pros as an authority figure: he’s a do-gooder, he’s kind, he’s fair, and time and again he’s pretty forgiving too. Parents who invoke the name of Santa as a means to get their excitable children to behave have worse role models to choose from.
Fast forward to the Elf on the Shelf. This sprite wasn’t around when my kids were younger. She got popular after my kids’ Santa years and she’s an interesting character. She too is tasked with monitoring kids’ behavior but at the same time she is mischievous and child-like herself. I hear parents half lamenting the chore of finding a new, harrowing hiding place for her each day but love the laughs and bragging rights on Instagram or Facebook when a great escapade has been designed. Children love her too. The hunt to find her each day is a delight and once found, the fun of making up the back story of how she got there is a hoot for parents and children alike. If this was all the Elf was for she would be unequivocally great but instead she has been tasked with spying on the children of the house and reporting back to Santa.
It’s odd to me that a mischievous Elf who defies common sense and gets into all sorts of scrapes has the job of tattling on kids who are often doing the same sorts of things! I’m not entirely sure how this is explained away by parents to their children but the whole concept seems very 21st century to me. Today, parents seem to relish their kids mischievous behavior to a point. They like the thought that their child is crafty or sly, it’s almost brag-worthy or cool. But when that same child crosses the invisible line between sly and sneaky, crafty and cruel, parents are forced to come down hard. The line is thin and difficult to see when you’re a child and if the same Elf who is judging your behavior for Santa is also toeing that line it gets even more blurred.
By invoking Santa or the Elf to rein in the kids parents sell themselves short. Actually they take a short cut. It’s a lot easier to put someone else in charge. And in doing so, kids get the sense that you aren’t in charge anymore and act up even more.
I know what you’re thinking, “Bah Humbug! She’s taking all the fun out of the Elf on the Shelf!” Perhaps. Or maybe the best plan is to just be parents, set limits and follow through on your own, and have fun with the Elf. Don’t make her double as a spy, leave the job of making the list and checking it twice to the big guy.