A local blogger who’s opinion I respect came out pretty hard against the whole Elf On The Shelf idea yesterday. I feel the need to respond because her post had a lot of implicit criticism of parents who have an elf, and obviously we do have one at our house. I generally don’t like to respond to someone else’s post on my own blog because it feels too much like talking about someone behind their back, and bringing it here is like trying to grab a home field advantage. I’m going to make an exception in this case because this is going to get too long to post in a comment.
Before I address the specifics of the post one thing needs to be repeated. When my wife brought the elf home I had a lot of the same concerns about the creepy surveillance factor, and I was worried it would scare them. That hasn’t happened. They’re overjoyed to find the elf somewhere new every morning. They seem to consider him a friend, and they like to speculate on where he will be the next day. The day it bothers them or scares them is the day it leaves our house.
My visceral reaction to reading that post was ‘more parenting advice from someone who isn’t a parent’, but I want to address it more thoroughly because there are some valid concerns.
We do not do good because we are being watched. You don’t turn in a wallet you found lying in the street just because someone else might have seen you pick it up. You don’t refrain from killing an obnoxious co-worker just because the police can hunt you down with luminol and fingerprints. You don’t refrain from stealing your neighbour’s doormat just because they have a picture window looking out from the front of their house.
We are good because that is the character we wish to develop in ourselves. We wish to be kind people so we treat others kindly. We wish to be honest so we behave honestly. As the bumper stickers say: Character is who you are when nobody is watching.
We are talking about children here, right? Because that might be a reasonable expectation for an adult**, but adult standards can’t realisticly be applied to children who don’t have fully developed cognitive abilities and 40 years of experience to fall back on. Young children are well behaved for one of two reasons. Either they’re afraid of the negative attention, or they want positive attention. The key to good parenting is knowing when to apply each.
Most children want to be praised not punished, and I think that’s a big point that is missing here. The best way to teach a child proper behavior is positive reinforcement. Maybe the elf makes some children behave out of fear, but at our house he notices that they are good, and he appreciates it just like mama and daddy do. It teaches young children that people notice what you do and there are consequences whether they are good or bad. That’s a very important lesson to learn, and it’s the first step toward becoming the adult described above.
There is one other thing that critics of Santa and his ‘good boys and girls get presents’ philosophy fail to consider. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Very few children spend all year judging their behavior based on how it will affect their Santa prospects. Most children spend day to day learning empathy and good behavior from their parents and Santa (and the elf) just reinforce that and emphasize that other people notice too.
Before I quit, I have one last thought. Both this post and the one I’m responding to are treating children as one monolithic block, and that’s a dangerous thing to do. Even leaving aside variations from child to child, you have to consider the child’s age and cognitive ability. I’m confident everything I’ve said here is true for young children but there is a world of difference between a four year old and an eight year old. As a child gets older a good parent has to evolve their parenting style and what works at one age will cause problems at another.
* Now that I think about it, I actually feel a little dirty defending the Elf On The Shelf for an entirely different reason. The whole phenomenon just feels like an attempt to make money for the folks that brought it to market, and I cite the $30-35 price point for a crappy doll and a book as my sole piece of evidence.
** I do think ‘we are good because that is the character we wish to develop’ is stopping the thought process one step short of where it needs to go in order to seriously discuss character. That circular statement doesn’t address any actual motivations unless you address why it’s the character we wish to develop. But that’s a little more philosophical than I think is necessary at the moment.