Dec 13, 2017, 10:17:42 AM CST Dec 7, 2023, 3:58:47 PM CST

Elf on the Shelf: Christmas friend or foe?

Learn the pros and cons of this tradition and how to determine if it's right for your family.

elf doll sitting on presents elf doll sitting on presents

The Elf on the Shelf, a toy based on a children's book published in 2005, is a fun and novel idea that many families have eagerly incorporated into their Christmas traditions. When a child names the Elf, it magically comes to life each night between Thanksgiving and Christmas to report back to Santa about the child's behavior. It then returns home to a different spot than the night before, but the child must not touch it, or it will lose its magic.

Some parents enjoy coming up with fun and creative scenarios where they place the Elf, while others cringe at the concept. So, what considerations should parents consider when deciding if they will participate in the Elf on the Shelf? We asked Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern.

Controversies of the Elf on the Shelf

One philosophy argues that Elf on a Shelf is a lie, threatens the trustworthiness of parents, and encourages gullibility in children rather than critical thinking. Some say that it inadvertently teaches children that their behavior should be governed by potential rewards (i.e., if you behave well, you’ll get more gifts on Christmas).

On the other hand, many psychologists suggest that, like believing in Santa, participating in the Elf on the Shelf can foster creativity and imagination. If telling your child that the Elf leaves each night to see Santa feels wrong, you may consider simply encouraging them to wonder about the possibilities of the Elf coming to life and what it might do each night.

Should families participate in Elf on the Shelf?

The answer comes down to your family’s motivations, values and beliefs.

For instance, if the primary motive is to add more magic or tradition to the Christmas season for parents and their children, then the Elf on the Shelf might be a fun way to do that.

However, if parents feel pressure to keep up with other parents by matching or one-upping the ideas they post on social media – or if what was initially intended as a source of joy becomes more of a burden – then maybe the Elf on the Shelf should pack up and return to the North Pole.

Some families choose to have their Elf on the Shelf serve an even greater purpose, and use it to teach children about giving back to their community. Families might put the Elf on a bookshelf or among canned food items, and encourage children to select books or food items to donate to local nonprofits.

Managing a child's behavior (e.g., frequently stating, "The Elf on the Shelf is going to tell Santa how bad you're being"), may not be the best primary motive. Children might interpret this as being labeled as a “bad” person, rather than understanding that their behavior was bad, but they can change that.

If parents do call on the Elf to report to Santa, it should be used much more often to reinforce good behavior rather than to report problem behavior. Using the Elf as a threat for punishment (e.g., no presents) may be fear-inducing and contrary to the goal of using the Elf to bring joy.

To lie or not to lie?

Some children become distraught once they learn that Santa is not real or realize they have been lied to about Santa. However, most children handle the news quite well (and often it is their parents who experience the disappointment). Similarly, there is little to no evidence to suggest that the Elf on the Shelf has an overall negative psychological impact on children.

What is most important is for families to determine if the Elf on the Shelf is congruent with their own family values and/or religious faith. Parents who yearn to share the magic and creativity of the Elf on the Shelf but do not want to lie, even if culturally acceptable in this case, can tell children the truth and join with them in "pretending" it comes to life each night.

In the end, the Elf on the Shelf does not have to be a friend or a foe. It’s up to your family to decide if it aligns with your beliefs and values.

Learn more

Get advice on having the "Santa conversation" with your child, and tips on what to do if kids at school spoil the Santa fun for your younger child.

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