Every Move You Make, Every Step You Take – I’ll Be Watching You*

Elf on the Shelf

“If you don’t behave, I’m calling Santa right now.”

Thus was the rare, but effective threat cast in our house during Christmas seasons during my childhood should one transgress the bounds of appropriate behavior.

Christmas was a truly  intoxicating time for me.  I fully embraced every detail of the season, from tree decorating to cookie-baking to listening earnestly for reindeer on the roof.

But I also recall a mix of excitement and discomfort about my behavior, and whether it would meet the standard for receiving toys and requested gifts.    The undercurrent of self-monitoring spanned the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, at which point I figured there really wasn’t much else I could do.  I’d given it my best shot — tried to get along with siblings, be nice to my friends, obey my parents and teachers.

Christmas morning was both relief and proof that I’d done alright.  I’d passed the test.

I’m just trying to figure out how I managed to do so without Elf on the Shelf, that pixie-spy spawned in 2005 that has taken the Christmas world by storm, stalking children daily during the six weeks before December 25.

Yes, this is another negative critique of the wildly successful toy and book set created by Carol Aebersold and her daughters.  The surveillant elf has proven such a cash cow for this family that they have spun the slender, long-legged spotter into a birthday personality as well.

For those of you who have not heard of this frightening reconnoiterer, let me summarize the story:  The elf is a scout for Santa (no, not a talent scout for the next child singer or Olympic gold medalist) who visits the homes of young children doing their best to manage their behavior for the many  pressure-filled weeks before Christmas.  The elf is there to assist Santa in monitoring his naughty-nice list and therefore plan his inventory for toys and chunks of shiny coal.  Once adopted by a family and given a name, the magical informant is perched in a different place each day to watch the “fun” and,  at night, fly to the North Pole to submit a report to Santa about the “adventures” observed.

We are told that children are really excited to awaken each morning to search for the Elf and his new post. Is this Elf really a friend?  I would imagine it’s rather confusing to a young child that this smiling, rosy-cheeked sprite  with a charge to watch your every move has your best interests at heart.

Yet, from what I have read and heard, children accept the Elf’s role and behave accordingly.  A note:  the child must not touch the Elf, either — a rule which layers even more mystery and blind respect for this creature.  (What do parents say to warn children away from this, that your finger will burn or your hand will fall off, perhaps?)

So children behave well to avoid the bad report —  punishment, the loss of favor from beloved Santa — and the potential loss of those desired toys.  This so-called holiday ritual is a bit unsettling, as it is so deeply in step with the long-standing punitive approach of  American culture to child behavior management, which focuses on fear, on what not to do, and on behaving well to avoid punishment and reap rewards.  Ultimately, children behave well for the wrong reason.

The Christmas season is supposed to be about kindness, giving, and gratitude, no?  Given the age-appropriate opportunities to talk about and act on these ideas, young children can see their value, without having to be spied into productive behavior, which likely does little to develop a moral compass for productive adult life.  And let’s be clear — children are developmentally acquisitive, so the promise of gifts  and toys will always be a powerful motivator in behavior and interactions.  Maturity is a journey.

Of course, this  wouldn’t be so bad were it not for other spin-offs of Elf and the reconnaissance of child behavior during November and December.  Two toys developed for Chanukah include Mensch on a Bench (covered on a recent episode of Shark Tank) Mensch on a Bench

and Maccabee on a Mantel.

Maccabee on the Mantel

Creators of both toys are spouses in interfaith families seeking ways to help their children avoid feeling left out of dominant culture (my term) holiday rituals.

Neal Hoffman, the creator of Mensch on a Bench, says his inspiration for this character came when his son asked for an Elf on the Shelf toy.  He successfully secured a  deal on  Shark Tank, and hopes to soon be selling Moshe the Mensch in Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Abra Lieberman-Garrett, creator of Maccabee on a Mantel, wanted her children  to have a toy that reflects aspects of their Jewish faith.  In an interview  with the Chicago Tribune, she explained that her son’s friends had an Elf on the Shelf at home, and there was even one poised in their classroom (proving  the power of this brand).  She decided that the Maccabee doll could serve as a symbol for teaching about history and the concept of bullying.

There is also a more direct response to Elf on the Shelf.  The Dwarf in the Drawer (L. Van King and Chuck Gonzales) assails the Elf as “preachy” and signifies him as “the creep who made Christmas a terrible thing.”  Take that, Sir Elf Spy.

A quartet of factors appear to be operating , though,  in this holiday phenomenon, with the creation of these characters:  the human drive to sustain meaning through ritual; an effort to prevent  children from feeling left out of mainstream activity; a long-standing approach to child behavior management; and good old American capitalism.

It’s one thing if a character is intended to be a model of ethical interactions, or someone who is managing conflict or overcoming adversity.  It’s another if that character is stalking you and becomes your standard for appropriate behavior.

When you are small, you are trying to figure out who you are and how to be in the world.  And you will make mistakes as you learn (Gartrell).   By definition as a wee human who is still learning, you need a break now and then.

So I suggest you find a companion to assist you during these final days of Chanukah and the Christmas season, because when you are small, you can always use a hand.

Allow me to suggest  some creatures from the Animal Kingdom to support you in defying the Elf.  You pick the animal with whom you most closely identify.  The animal will see the best in you, and will be your emotional coach when things get rough. Call on him or her as needed.  Think of him as your daemon. Here’s a list.

Bear on a Chair

Cat on a Mat

Fish in a Dish

Owl on a Towel

Snake on a Rake

Bug on a Rug

Fox on a Box

Dog on a Log

Skunk on a Trunk

Pup in a Cup

Weasel on an Easel

Kitten on a Mitten

Mink in a Sink

Dove in a Glove

Mouse on a Blouse

Sloth on a Cloth

Pig on a Twig

Otter on a Blotter

Crow on a Bow

Boar at the Door

To  all children, big and small, may the holidays bring you peace,  joy and the confidence that you are doing the very best you can with all that you have.

*The Police, 1983

4 thoughts on “Every Move You Make, Every Step You Take – I’ll Be Watching You*”

  1. And my personal favorite, for the adult-ish person continually making questionable choices: Whore in a Drawer.

    I love this post, Sheila. As always, you go right to the core. This causes me to go straight to my constant question “do parents PARENT anymore?” This gangly creep replaces the parenting with which many of us were raised, and replaces it with the thought that if not being watched, there’s no reason to behave. I’m generalizing with a squeegee here, but I don’t think I’m that far off.

    Perhaps we should call Elf on the Shelf what it truly is:

    Morals on their Laurels.

  2. Morals on their Laurels, indeed, Nicki. You’ve hit it on the head, actually. The Elf It messes with children’s ability to build their own sense of right and wrong, lessening the ability to build inner control and the tools necessary for getting along with other people. Children likely feel discomfort and anxiety, worrying more about “getting caught” doing something wrong — the law and order morality that Kohlberg discussed. A bit sad for a season that should be fun and enjoyable.

  3. My kids are 10 and 4, and I feel compelled to share our approach to the Elf as I feel it supports a different goal than those discussed here.

    Our Elf’s name is Manny, named by our oldest. Looking to see where a seemingly inanimate Manny flew to find a new perch for the day is a delight every morning in my house. Even though he travelled to the North Pole to visit with Santa and the reindeer and came back overnight (!) he’s always smiling and looking mischievous, as a good elf should.

    We don’t really discuss Manny’s purpose as to be the eyes and ears of Santa because we’ve never used Santa (or Manny) as an external threat for good behavior. Santa always comes to our house, without question. Our kids know we think they are good kids, no matter what example of little kid “bad” behavior may arise. After all, we are both ECE folk- our understanding of “bad” behavior is already different than most.

    My goal as a parent is simply to instill a belief in magic in my children. We have fairies who live in a renovated flower pot in the front yard, soot sprites that inhabit our dusty corners, discuss ancient gods and goddesses as if they were here today, and are wary of tangible “bad vibes” that cause things like random shattered plates or glasses – always in the kitchen.

    We put out glittery reindeer food every Christmas Eve so the reindeer have a little snack like Santa’s milk and cookies, not to bribe them into stopping at our house. As in The Polar Express (which we watch every year) I want them both to Believe so they can still hear the tinkling sleigh bells well into adulthood – just as I do, despite my belief in logic and science.

  4. Dear SWMB, I deeply appreciate your sharing what your family does with the Elf, as it shows how each family can create its own meaning and ritual with this symbol, create excitement during a holiday season — and most importantly of all, in my view: sustain children’s experience of fantasy, wonder and mystery. You’ve made the choice to keep magic a part of your children’s lives. What a lovely place your home must be at Christmastime! Thank you.

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