By: Kristen Berthiaume
I am not a big fan of Elf-on-the-Shelf (although I do kind of enjoy this and this). The central premise of the book – that Elf-on-the-Shelf will tell Santa if kids misbehave – bothers me for a few reasons. First, the Elf himself often misbehaves (Flour snow angels are kind of a mess) but is supposed to monitor the kids’ behavior, which is confusing to say the least. Second, the Elf monitoring system only works for one month a year, which can leave parents with no system of managing behavior for the remaining 11. Finally, and most problematic, the arrangement sets us up for making empty threat after empty threat. Would we really follow through with giving our kids no presents from Santa? Have any of you ever actually done this? I can say for sure that my kids will not be getting coal in their stockings, no matter how atrocious their behavior. For one, I have no idea where to find coal and don’t have the time or mental energy to go looking for it. Also, knowing my kids, they would find some exceedingly messy way to play with the coal and, as I’ve mentioned, I am not looking for messes. In the midst of opening up their mountains of presents, kids will come to realize that either the Elf didn’t mean it when he said he’d tell Santa on them or that Santa will bring the goods regardless. Consequently, behavior may be even worse next December.
In a perfect world, those who enjoy creating elaborate Elf scenes and posting pictures of them on Pinterest would do that and I’d just ignore the whole thing entirely. Unfortunately, my kids talk to other kids and have started this year desperately pleading for an Elf and wondering why friends have them but they don’t. Dilemma: Shatter all the magic of Christmas in one fell swoop or find a way to make Elf-on-the-Shelf work for our family. I chose the latter and we shall see how it goes. Here are the modifications I made in case you’re an Elf-on-the-Shelf hater who feels like you need to do Elf-on-the-Shelf for your kids. By the way, I totally support you in just straight up saying no to any of this Elf business.
I saw a post I liked recently about a different kind of Elf – a Kindness Elf – and decided to do an Elf-on-the-Shelf / Kindness Elf hybrid. Our Elf looks like an Elf on the Shelf but I didn’t buy the book with all the rules.
Our Elf “wrote” the kids a letter (see below) saying that he didn’t mind if they touched him but that he had to always be returned to the same spot before bed because he could only fly from certain places (I made this rule because I don’t need to be tearing apart the house to find that #$%& Elf every night!).
Our Elf doesn’t tell Santa anything. He does dash back to the North Pole at night to fetch Kindness Challenges printed on long strips of paper to present to the kids each morning. And, when he returns, he’s sitting somewhere new. Maybe he’ll occasionally do something helpful like load the dishwasher (since I’m going to be doing that anyway…)
Some sample challenges:
1) At school, give a compliment to someone;
2) Find out your mom’s least favorite chore and secretly do it for her (I never said this couldn’t be self-serving…
and 3) Tell someone “Thank you” for something they have done for you recently.
There’s no “prize” for completing a challenge and no one’s in trouble if he or she doesn’t do one. But, completed challenges get stapled together to form a Kindness Chain so, obviously, the more the kids do, the longer the chain gets. The paper chain would be something fun to add to your Christmas tree or mantle so the kids can see their 25 days worth of kind deeds. This activity gives you a good jumping off point for discussing together why it’s important to do things for others, how it feels to be kind, and why kindness is particularly highlighted this time of year. Talk about how Santa embodies kindness and, if you’re Christian, how Jesus does, as well. Consider big, family-wide Kindness Challenges like serving at a soup kitchen, purchasing items for an Angel Tree, or saving money to send to a non-profit like Heifer Project International.
A couple of caviats. I don’t love doing things for my kids just because everyone else is doing it for theirs. However, it can be tricky to completely opt out of Elf-on-the-Shelf without totally spoiling Christmas magic if your kids feel hurt that their friends have an Elf but they don’t. Also, the deception required to convince your kids they’re being visited by Elves (and Santa for that matter) bothers me a bit. Once they know the truth – will they still trust us parents? If this concerns you, too, there are lots of ideas online
for how to tell kids the truth about Santa (and Elves, Flying Reindeer, etc.) when the time is right without losing their trust. I particularly like this idea.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s something you feel you have the resources for. The holidays are a crazy busy time and there’s A LOT of pressure on parents to give their kids the “Perfect Christmas,” which can be time-consuming, and expensive, and exhausting. It might be a good idea to log out of Pinterest and decide on a mantra like “I can only do so much” to repeat to yourself. Traditions like Elf-on-the-Shelf, Kindness Elves, Santa, riding the Christmas train, or taking a tour of Christmas lights may seem like a lot of fun but you should only undertake them if they’re a good fit for your family. It’s more important to focus on enjoying each other and being kind and generous with your time, than to worry about if you’re doing all the things you’re “supposed” to do this Christmas.
Dear ___________ –
Merry December! I am so glad to be with you for the Christmas season – thanks for asking for me! You may have heard your friends talk about Elf-on-the-Shelf but I’m a bit different. I don’t tell on you to Santa if you make bad decisions (although I like to see you make good decisions). Your parents will work with you on your behavior. I also don’t make mischief because I know you wouldn’t want to clean up messes (and neither would your parents). Sometimes, I might do things to make you laugh, though. I am a very special kind of Elf – I’m a Kindness Elf. Kindness, which means treating others fairly and gently and being generous with what you have – is my very favorite thing! And Santa’s favorite thing, too. At the North Pole, we’re all CRAZY FOR KINDNESS!!!
So, you and I will be making together a Kindness Chain for Christmas. Each day in December, until Christmas Day, I will dash back to the North Pole while you’re sleeping to collect a Kindness Challenge from Santa. Once you’ve completed it, you will add that challenge to the ones before it so that, by Christmas, you’ll have a beautiful chain of Kindnesses you have shown others. You never have to complete a Kindness Challenge – these are all up to you. I hope you’ll have as much fun with these as I’ll have bringing them to you!
See your very first challenge attached. Good luck and may Kindness be with you!
Your New Elf
P.S. I know some Elves don’t like to be touched but I don’t mind it as long as you’re gentle. BUT, it is very important that you always put me back just where you found me. I can only fly off from certain places and will be stuck if you move me!
Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages ten and four, and seven-year-old son.