But I would like to add a fourth objection to all this Christmas lying—an objection to something that can be present in the Santa Claus lie as well, but is the main purpose of The Elf on the Shelf lie: goading your children into behaving with promises of future lavish reward. I’m not denying it is useful for this purpose. As one of my students told me about their older brother and his wife’s Elf on the Shelf, “All they have to do is remind the kids that the elf is watching, and the fights and tantrums stop and they are perfectly behaved.” I am arguing that, regardless of its effectiveness, the elf should go.
Now, don’t get me wrong, mild rewards in response to spontaneous positive behavior can be a good thing. Children develop good character with good habits and we want to encourage the development of those habits by sometimes rewarding good behavior when we see it. But stopping bad behavior with promises of future reward is completely different – and a terrible and harmful practice. First of all, it’s just lazy parenting – the easiest, but worst, way to get your children to behave. Secondly, children need to learn self-controland to do the right thing for its own sake. But a child who behaves because The Elf on the Shelf is watching and will tell Santa—that child is learning the exact opposite: that how they behave should be dictated by the rewards they receive. And this is not unproblematic. What happens when these children grow up and discover that in the real world, it is lying and cheating that earns the most rewards? Now, I’m not saying that The Elf on the Shelf will encourage even more corruption in the business world – but I’m also not not saying that either.
Ironically, I most recently found evidence for my position in an article written by child psychologist Melinda Wenner Moyer (for Slate Magazine) where she argues in favor ofthe Santa-lie. (She thinks it’s okay because it encourages imagination. She’s wrong; it doesn’t. I’ve point out, elsewhere, why.) Although she is okay with the Santa-Lie in general, she emphatically points out that lying – and specifically the Santa lie – should not be used as a parental crutch.
“Though lying can be an awfully convenient parenting crutch—Sorry, sweetheart, but the police might arrest you if I let you have more candy so we better not—it’s generally best to keep it to a minimum, both to develop trust between yourself and your child and to lead by example…[but] sometimes, parents use Santa inappropriately, such as when they force their terrified kids to sit on Santa’s lap or when they use him primarily as a disciplinary threat—If you keep throwing pens at your sister, Santa will leave coal in your stocking.”
Obviously, the same point applies to The Elf on the Shelf, and since his primary use is as a disciplinarian threat, Moyer would clearly agree with the critique I have offered here.
I know I have friends and relatives who own and are using The Elf on the Shelf (I’ve seen your Facebook posts) and they’re probably pretty upset with me right now. Please forgiveme. I’m not saying you’re bad parents. I’m just trying to encourage you – in fact, everyone – to think a little bit more critically before you fall for the next Christmas fad. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy The Elf on the Shelf. In fact, go buy 40! They make cute decorations. I’m just saying they should not be used to trick your children. It’s like Santa. It’s not that Santa should be eliminated from Christmas, it’s just that – like The Elf on the Shelf – he should not be used as prescribed.
David Kyle Johnson Ph.D.
David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophyat King’s College in Pennsylvania. He has done extensive work using popular culture to explain and illustrate philosophical ideas and arguments. He has written articles on everything from South Park to The Hobbit, Doctor Who to The Onion, and Quentin Tarantino to Christmas. He edited a book on Heroes and on Inception. He also co-edited Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture: From Socrates to South Park, Hume to House with William Irwin.