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What’s that elf doing on the shelf?

Ten years ago, an enterprising mother-daughter team (Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell) created a story that explains how Santa Claus knows whether kids have been naughty or nice. This story was based on their own family Christmas tradition according to which each year, Santa sent an elf to their home to watch over the children and report back to Santa.

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The book, sold in a box with a toy elf and detailed “instructions”, was a commercial success and went on to win a Best Toy Award and a Book of the Year Award.


In spite of its success with parents and children alike, the book did also generate some serious controversy, both because it was said to desensitize children to being “spied” upon and because of the implication that good behaviour will result in receiving gifts for Christmas.

Neither concept is actually new and both were associated with Christmas well before the Elf, as witnessed by the 1934 song that contains the words “he sees when you are sleeping, he knows when you awake, he knows if you’ve been good or bad”.

What to do?

As with all rites and traditions, the impact of the “elf on the shelf” on children depends, in my view, more on the way the parents or caregivers use it, than on the object itself.

If a parent respects their child’s right to privacy, and teaches them the importance of respecting others, the child is unlikely to uncritically “accept state surveillance”, as one university professor has put it.

Nevertheless, some kids may be uncomfortable with the idea that a magical elf is watching their behaviour and that there will be consequences at Christmas.

You can avoid the whole threat / reward aspect of the Christmas Elf story by focusing on positive messages rather than criticism, and on acts of kindness rather than rewards.

Let the Elf carry a message about something nice or positive that your child did during the day. You’ll find that your child will be highly motivated to be on their best behaviour the following day as well.

And rather than talking about gifts and rewards, why not go back to the origins of Christmas and its message of Love.  From time to time, the elf could leave a message suggesting an act of kindness, such as helping with the dishes, baking cookies, visiting grandma, etc.

There are many ways to use the Christmas Elf in a positive manner!

Make your own elf

Make your own elf and involve your kids in the process. This is a fun way to bring the family together and start your own elf tradition. The purpose of the Animaplates Christmas Elf is just that. It’s easy to make and requires just a few basic supplies.

Click to see how to make this elf yourself

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