A huge Christmas tradition, besides the bottomless sweets and festive holiday movies, that has blown up in recent years is Elf on the Shelf. Manipulating the "family elf" into silly and elaborate poses at night to be discovered the next morning by your children is supposed to be a fun, family-bonding activity, right? Not so fast.
The crux of this toy is that the elf is not-so-secretly spying on your kids on a daily basis to report their behavior to Santa Claus. If your child is bad or doesn't follow rules, the obvious risk is that their Christmas presents will be sacrificed, and they will instead receive that dreaded lump of coal. Child psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe warns that this little game might not be as innocent and light-hearted as originally thought.
When adults get up to tricks and strategies to try and control children's behavior, two not-so-great things happen.
"Parents have been trying frantically to control their children's behavior by making some kind of positive outcome contingent on good behavior," she explained. "Be good and you get a star on the star chart. Be good and Santa will bring you a present. The problem is that this creates fallout emotionally and neurologically."
Dr. Lapointe explained that contrary to popular belief, good behavior isn't something that can be conned. "When adults get up to tricks and strategies to try and control children's behavior, two not-so-great things happen. The first is that the child intuitively senses in the adult a struggle to control, which must mean that the adult doesn't really have it going on. A capable, competent, in-charge adult wouldn't need to rely on tricks and strategies to control the child. The second is that the child feels 'played' by the adult."
This "played" feeling is especially problematic for families, since it has the potential to create a disconnect between the children and adults. "Scientifically, we know that a child's most essential need for healthy development is a deep and trusting relationship with their parent," Dr. Lapointe said. "So this is not something we should mess around with."
The risk, Dr. Lapointe maintains, is in the emotion and neurological well-being of the child. "Emotionally, when children learn that acceptance and acclaim flow from acquiescing to the will of another, it doesn't take much to see how self-concept is impacted. Now fast forward to this child's adolescence . . . is it any wonder they have succumbed to peer pressure?"
But it's not just their emotional health that is at risk. "When children experience relational disconnection, it activates the stress network in the brain," Dr. Lapointe continued. "When these areas are activated consistently, neuroplasticity dictates that the brain will grow to be good at being stressed. This is likely to lead to more challenging behaviors rather than improved behavior."
If parents want to join in the revelry of Elf on the Shelf, but without the risk associated with it, Dr. Lapointe recommends removing the problematic elements. "Have him be a friendly little soul who helps the child along," she said. "Maybe the elf is just for entertainment value. Maybe the elf actually takes helpful bits of info back to Santa rather than tattling on the child."