More than ever I love the Christmas season. It’s not just the beautiful hymns or the birth narrative, I’m all about the secular stuff too. As I write this a Jazzy version of Let It Snow is playing on my Echo, I am anxiously awaiting my first ugly sweater in the mail and I am lusting for a warm peppermint mocha. I think being a dad for several years now has made me a festive guy. I also like seeing on Facebook and Instagram the sweet pictures of my friends and their kids cozied up between the fireplace and the Christmas tree. I can be cynical sometimes but a little less so with Christmas wonder.
That all said, I hate and I mean HATE The Elf on the Shelf and always will. Elf on the Shelf is shame inducing, privacy creeping, and of course quite creepy. Full disclosure: our family doesn’t do the Santa Clause thing. We like to read The Night Before Christmas and wear Santa hats but we have always taught our kids Santa is pretend for a variety of reasons; primarily concerns about undermining Jesus’ message of grace. If you want to hear more on that I did a podcast episode on it a few years ago. While we don’t do Santa in the way many do, I like Santa plenty and I think some things are far worse than teaching your kids the jolly fat man is real. One of those far worse things is Elf on the Shelf.
Don’t dismiss this take as a personal grudge against the literally untouchable Elf on the Shelf, plenty of non-Christian child psychologists and thinkers share my detest for EOTS. Hank Stuever at The Washington Post described it as “just another nannycam in a nanny state obsessed with penal codes.” The Atlantic published a take down of this tradition it describes as dangerous in which creepy was probably the kindest descriptor. Most significantly Psychology Today labeled it a “dangerous parental crutch.” Psychology Today’s Canadian counterpart has published multiple similar articles. A staggering number of child psychologists have lamented the tremendous growth of Elf on the Shelf.
I believe Christians should have the absolute harshest criticism of this analogue nanny cam. Elf on the Shelf’s stated design is to watch and report a child’s good or bad behavior to report back to Santa whether or not the children are worthy of coal or a Nintendo Switch. The reason why parents spend hours on Pinterest to find the perfect place to put him is because Elf on the Shelf is designed to give the impression he might be watching at anytime. This behavior spying is further reinforced by the main rule children must follow, don’t touch the Elf. If children touch the Elf the kids might realize he is just a doll and return to lose the guilt motivation for behaving right during the holidays.
The problem is that scripture repeatedly shows us true obedience and character is fundamentally others (especially God) focused. Obedience done to get the benefits that come when others see one’s good deeds is nothing but being little Pharisees. Of course occasionally giving a young child a reward for their obedience is quite beneficiary but when they are taught to live for rewards a moralist you have made. Christian morality teaches we are who we are when no one is watching us, The Elf on the Shelf makes sure we are always watched and just bottle up the demons we need to face head on. Christian parents are supposed to teach their kids to do the right thing because it honors God and brings joy to others, Elf on the Shelfers are taught to do what mommy says because if they act up in their room when dinner is on the stove Elfy’s gonna snitch.
Another problem in this is The Elf on the Shelf is a thief, a thief that steals away a child’s privacy and robs parents of the opportunity to offer their kids trust. Elf on the Shelf is strangely one more way we are putting off letting children grow up. Part of growing up and having a private (and public) relationship with Christ is being given the opportunity of privacy. Parents that use Elf on the Shelf are quite content taking that away from their children. If we make sure our kids are never in situations in which their behavior is between them and God we are implying we aren’t willing to trust them to make their own choices. Trust is an important cog in any healthy relationship and even Christian parents with the meanest 2nd grader ought to show Christian mercy by extending some level of trust even when it backfires. These private times when we trust our kids is frequently when even young children can find for themselves who they really are and who their God truly is. A friend was surprised a few months ago to find his young son praying privately in his room not long after being given the opportunity to go off and play. How much would The Elf on the Shelf have tainted that moment? My friend would never know if his son prayed because God was at work or because doing so may get the Elf to put in a good word with Santa.
Brothers and sisters, this year let’s hide The Elf on the Shelf permanently. Let’s teach our kids real obedience and surprise them with trust. The Christmas message is a message of God loving us rebels deserving of eternal coal by sending the God man who bought us everlasting life. The Elf on the Shelf who counts our good and our bad is antithetical to the real message of Christmas. Go find a new tradition that exalts Christ or is just harmless cute fun this Christmas time. Get rid of that elf and probably don’t replace him with the Mensch on the Bench.