Santa has had his fair share of helpers over the years—the Austrian Krapmus, the Dutch Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) and the German Knecht Ruprecht, just to name a few. But recently Santa has acquired a new helper—and he’s gaining popularity every day: The Elf on the Shelf. You likely know someone who has one; you may even have one yourself. Most see it as fun and harmless and innocent, but I would like to argue it is not. It’s something that should be avoided at all costs.
For those who don’t know what The Elf on the Shelf is, it is simply a small elf doll that you can place on a shelf (which you can buy for $29.95). But the name is not as self-explanatory as it first might seem; there’s much more. He comes with his own website, iPhone apps, and even his own TV Christmas special. But the controversial part is what you tell the kids about The Elf on the Shelf: “The elf is actually alive and moves around when you’re not looking. He’s watching you and you never know where he will turn up next. And if he sees you doing something wrong he reports directly back to Santa.” As his ad on Amazon stays:“Every year at Christmas, Santa sends his elves to watch you. And they go back and tell him who’s been bad and who’s been good. The Elf on the Shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do. The Elf on the Shelf is watching you, each and every Christmas.”Kids are not allowed to touch him and you are supposed to move him around every night to a different place in the house so the kids think he’s alive. This way, anytime the children misbehave, all you have to do is remind them that The Elf on the Shelf is watching.Fun right? A little Christmas joy along with an easy way to keep the children behaving for about a month. What could possibly be wrong with this seemingly harmless practice? I say plenty.I have argued against the Santa Claus lie – the practice of tricking your children into believing that Santa Claus is literally real – elsewhere (in 2009, 2010 and in my book The Myths that Stole Christmas). My argument is threefold. It’s a lie (that does not encourage imagination), it threatens your parental trustworthiness, and it encourages credulity. But The Elf on the Shelf is basically a steroid shot for the Santa Lie—a physical reminder of the Santa lie in your house for a whole month. So it should not be surprising that my objections to the practices surrounding The Elf on the Shelf are similar.
First, it most certainly is a lie. Of course, not all lies are morally wrong. Lies done for noble or monumental purposes are morally excusable, sometimes even morally praiseworthy. But the fun you have tricking your children into believing something false is not a noble cause; don’t fool yourself – you’re not saving any lives.Second, your children rely on you to give them accurate information about the way the world is, and you should want them to trust and believe what you say. But finding out that you have been lying to them – and even been playing an elaborate joke on them (for example by moving the elf yourself but telling them it moves on its own) – has the possibility of significantly eroding their ability to trust you. What else might you be lying about, or tricking them into believing? (Think it’s not a big deal? In some stories I have collected, children come to doubt God’s existence after learning the truth about Santa; “If mom and dad are lying about Santa, they’re probably lying about God too.” This is actually fairly good reasoning. Have you ever thought about how many characteristics the two characters share?)
Third, it promotes credulity – a gullibility and propensity to believe things that are false. Just like with Santa Claus, to get your children to believe The Elf on the Shelf is alive, you have to encourage them to turn off their critical thinking skills – don’t question, don’t doubt, just believe. This is not the kind of thing we want to encourage in our children; in fact, credulity is a major contributing factor to the decline of American civilization. As Hank Stuever put it in Tensel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present:
“If a child has concluded…that it’s impossible for a man in a flying sleigh to make it all the way around the world in one night, delivering elf made replicas of all the stuff you see in Target and Best Buy, then that’s a child I would be happy to steer toward a voting booth when she’s 18. That’s an American in search of facts. If, however, she goes on pretending to believe well into her teens (I encountered more than one such teenager in Frisco) because it makes her parents (and God) feel sweet and happy, then I become worried. That becomes an American willing to spend $100,000 on her “special day” wedding or who will believe without hard evidence that other countries harbor weapons of mass destruction when they don’t.”