I hate the sneaky little Elf on the Shelf, but clearly I am the minority when I see the revenues being pulled in by this little fella. He even has a movie deal and collateral products. For millions of young children, the appearance of the Elf on the Shelf is now as much a Christmas tradition as figgy pudding and hanging stockings.
Apart from my respect for the business savvy that made this toy a hit, there is no other merit I see in this elf phenomenon. Let’s look at the concept through the lens of best practices for parenting.
"We can lump the elf in the same category as any other threats that parents use as an attempt to control their children’s behaviour."
The story goes that the elf arrives from the North Pole to watch over the behaviours of the children and report back to Santa if they were naughty or nice. Everyone knows if you are on the naughty list, you don’t get gifts from Santa.
So, what we are really telling our children is that they better behave… or else! This is really a veiled threat. As such, we can lump the elf in the same category as any other threats that parents use as an attempt to control their children’s behaviour. This method of parenting is called external control and is distinct from internal control parenting.
When parents opt for external control methods, they are basically trying to get their child to mind their will or wishes. To accomplish this, there are two main discipline tools: bribes and reward or, alternatively, threatening them with a punishment if they don’t conform or comply.
"External control methods can hurt a child’s self-esteem, lower their motivation, and build barriers in the parent-child relationship."
These are external motivators, and yes, they can work in the short term. However, the long term effects are costly. External control methods can hurt a child’s self-esteem, lower their motivation, and build barriers in the parent-child relationship.
Additionally, the child often won’t behave properly when the authority figure is not present in order to dispense the reward or punishment, which is how we got in this mess in the first place!!
Now we need an elf watching to ensure they don’t hit their sister when we leave the room to start supper. We can’t live in a surveillance state to ensure order. It’s unsustainable and oppressive.
Instead, wouldn’t it be great to raise children who don’t hit their sister because they know it’s not the right way to act? YES, it’s possible! Raising children who are intrinsically motivated to be cooperative and well behaved requires an internal control method of parenting.
"We can’t live in a surveillance state to ensure order. It’s unsustainable and oppressive."
Intrinsic methods stimulate a child’s own motivation to choose good conduct for themselves (not out of fear or a desire for a reward), but simply for the intrinsic value in getting along with others. We need to abandon methods that aim to make kids obedient and instead adopt parenting techniques that serve to raise a child who is cooperative.
How does one do that? Follow this column! I have dedicated my entire career to teaching parents these techniques. But for starters, tell your children that the elf is gone. He flew back to tell Santa that he doesn’t need to keep an eye on them anymore because they are good people and they don’t need to prove it.
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