Behavior Modification, Santa and the Elf on the Shelf
It’s the time of year where I’m due for at least one blog post about how we’re fumbling our way through winter holiday traditions and figuring out what works for our family. I wasn’t originally planning to write about about Santa today, although he’s been much discussed in our house over the past week or two. Instead, I was going to do my normal Wordless Wednesday post and share a few pictures of some baby sewing projects I’ve been working on…but Wordless Wednesday and baby sewing got cancelled when we opened a package from a well-meaning grandparent today.
Yes, there is now an Elf on the Shelf in my house. For those of you not familiar with the Elf on the Shelf, he is, in a nutshell, a doll that parents can use to convince their children of Santa’s ability to know if they are being naughty or nice.
He comes with a book that explains how he is a magical elf who cannot be touched by children (or he will lose his magic) and who spends his days watching them before returning every night to the North Pole to report on their behavior to Santa Claus. There’s no explicit mention of coal in stockings or not receiving gifts if behavior is bad, but clearly that is the intent behind the words on the page. As the author writes on the dust jacket of the book:
Unwittingly, the tradition provided an added benefit: it helped the children to better control themselves. All it took was a gentle reminder that the “elf is watching” for errant behavior to be modified.
I’ve written before about my dislike of the “naughty or nice” tradition that goes along with Santa and the threat of gifts being withheld if a child was “bad” — honestly, I dislike this aspect of Santa even more than the over-consumption and celebration of consumerism aspect, and it is a significant part of why we aren’t pushing Santa in our house. I believe that gifts are something that should come with no strings attached; that when something, anything, is required before a gift is given (even if that thing is good behavior) than the “gift” is no longer a gift. Something that has to be earned is a reward, not a gift, and does little to teach about the spirit of generosity and selfless giving that is supposed to be a part of Christmas traditions.
Besides that, as a parent, I often wonder about the efficacy of Santa as a behavior modifier. I can’t imagine many parents actually following through on threats to not give gifts and if there’s never any follow-through, what effect do such threats have? Clearly with younger children, threats of Santa or an Elf on the Shelf watching them might work to stop behavior in the moment, but I can’t see it creating any long term changes. Wouldn’t it be better, albeit less easy, to talk to about why certain behavior is unacceptable? Rather than teach our children that they should be aware of how their actions make others feel and should act in ways that are respectful to themselves and others, these types of threats only teach children they should be “good” because it will benefit them tangibly. “Be nice because Santa is coming to town” teaches selfishness and little else.
I spoke with my mother-in-law about this today and she drew a comparison between the Elf on the Shelf and Hopi Kachina dolls, which were given to children around this time of year to teach Hopi history, behavioral expectations, moral codes, and ritual practices. The dolls represented a spirit that men of the village would then dress up as during ceremonies and rituals, similar to men in our culture dressing up as Santa Claus. One particular Kachina, Natasaka, would visit the homes of families with children, demanding gifts of food with a warning that if the children have misbehaved, he would return to kidnap or eat the children. Sure, the threat of coal in your stocking is a little less severe, but the intent is the same: behavior modification through threats of punishment rather than the teaching of why one behavior is preferred over the other.
We’re “doing” Santa lite this year, which is to say that we are neither encouraging nor discouraging his existence. We read stories about Christmas and Santa, just as we read stories about Angelina Ballerina and any other fictional character. Stockings will be filled with our standard of exotic fruit and special sweets, though not on Christmas (we do all of our gift opening on Solstice) and with no mention of who filled the stockings. If Nora asks if Santa is real, as she did upon seeing a picture of one of her friends with Santa on Facebook, we are differing to her and asking what she thinks (in that case, she answered “yes”). For the most part, we are taking an approach very similar to that of Christina at Her Bad Mother, and leaving the choice of belief or not up to Nora. But the one thing we won’t be doing is telling her that Santa is watching and checking her name off on a list…which means, sorry to say for that little elf, his days are going to be spent not on a shelf surveying our living room and keeping watch for good and bad behavior, but wrapped up tight in his box or magic-less and played with just like any other doll.
I really like this post – especially the part about the inappropriateness of Christmas *gifts* being used as a reward for good behavior. Those aren’t gifts, then, and I honestly hadn’t thought about it that way before. I do share your frustration with countless threats of “Santa’s watching” that never amount to anything. But (and I’m speaking mostly rhetorically but we do have my stepdaughter part-time) I think that there is a place for outlining punishment for bad behavior in young children just because their morals haven’t developed to the point where being “good for goodness sake” has any real meaning – let alone appeal.
I agree that the whole Elf on the Shelf thing just feels wrong. I had no idea what it was until last year. The fervor with which people come up with new ideas to trick their kids into thinking this thing is watching them (just look on Pinterest for ideas and you’ll see what I mean) and tattling on them if they are bad…it just creeps me out, a la Mr Marbles style from Seinfeld. The spirit of it seems wrong. Then again I also have reservations re: Santa and the whole he’s watching you too, but I don’t know what to do about that yet. For now I do know there will be no elves on our shelves. Instead, mama is watching if you are naughty or nice, not that creepy thing!!
Thanks, Amber. I’m hoping it’s just a fad. Christmas traditions should be nourishing and connecting, building community. I know some kids are terrified of this guy. The whole idea of ‘you’ll get gifts if you’re good’ is the opposite of ‘Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth. Peace.’
Have to go watch another glorious sunrise, but thanks!