Dec 13, 2017, 10:17:42 AM CST Jan 30, 2023, 1:22:37 PM CST

Elf on the Shelf: Christmas friend or foe?

A clinical psychologist discusses the potential psychological implications of the Elf on the Shelf

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 to the home to a different spot than the night before, but the child must not touch it, or it will lose its magic.

Many parents come up with fun and creative scenarios where they place the Elf, although other parents 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, about the potential psychological impact of the Elf on the Shelf tradition.

Controversies of the Elf on the Shelf

One philosophy provides a compelling argument about the dangers of the Elf on the Shelf, namely that it is a lie, threatens the trustworthiness of parents, ultimately encourages gullibility in children rather than critical thinking and inadvertently teaches children that their behavior should be governed by potential rewards (i.e., gifts on Christmas).

Many psychologists suggest that, like believing in Santa, participating in the Elf on the Shelf can foster creativity and imagination. This depends on how "imagination" is defined. Some argue that imagination requires pretending, and to pretend that the Elf on the Shelf comes to life at night would require knowing that it does not actually do so.

Many others have a broader definition of imagination that includes pretending but does not require it. Here it involves believing in the magic of the Elf or, even if there are doubts, simply wondering about the possibilities of the Elf coming to life and what it might do each night.

Should families participate in Elf on the Shelf?

Despite some controversies about the Elf on the Shelf, what seems more important are the motives behind it and the family's overall 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 this.

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, such as assigning charitable activities for their child to complete for others.

If a primary motive is to manage a child's behavior (e.g., frequently stating, "The Elf on the Shelf is going to tell Santa how bad you're being"), however, then children might interpret this to mean that it is not their behavior that is being labeled as "bad," but them as individuals.

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 with their children the magic and creativity of the Elf on the Shelf but do not want to lie to them about it, even if culturally acceptable in this case, can tell them the truth about the Elf and join with them in "pretending" it comes to life each night.

Doing so can still foster their imagination while drawing a clear distinction between what the family views as imagination and what it views as truth. But choosing not to tell them the full truth about the Elf on the Shelf is still probably okay, too.

In the end, the Elf on the Shelf does not necessarily have to be a friend, but it also does not have to be a foe.

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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