Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

In Defense of The Elf*

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. 


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The sad tree behind bars.

There are few things that rival the casual destruction of a toddler.  As you can see, way back in 2008 we had to put our Christmas tree behind bars just to keep out the destruction which was wrought daily in our house with two eleven month olds.  The next year (just before they turned two) we rtook away the bars, but the Christmas tree was bare other than lights and a pitiful few soft unbreakable ornaments.  They still had a merry olde time unscrewing the lights when we weren’t looking.  You don’t really see the ability to wreak havoc so casually in adults.  Granted, there are the occasional folks that just want to see the world burn (apologies for the drama, but that’s my favorite movie quote/internet meme) but they have to actually put in a little effort.  For a toddler it just comes naturally.

This talent appears out of thin air right about the time a baby learns to move around.  It starts fairly slow. After the twins learned to sit up we would sit them down at one end of the room and try to start a chore at the other end.  I used to swear that they must have some leperchaun blood  because as soon as I focused on some non baby related task (as if there were such a thing) I would realize they were under my feet trying to tie my shoelaces together. No one ever saw how they got there.  It certainly didn’t happen while we were watching, they just suddenly teleported there as soon as no one was looking.

"I was being a good girl mama. HE made the mess!

The appetite for destruction only accelerates once they learn to crawl and once the walking starts it only broadens the opportunities.  The destruction goes from floor level to anything within three feet of the ground.  At our house it was so bad I was worried the zone of destruction was just going to get taller and taller for the next 20 years.

Never fear, new parents.  It does get better.  Around 24-30 months the abilities all start to come together and your little tornados of destruction morph into actual little people.  I think of it as the Age of Reason. It’s a perfect storm convergence of confidence in their physical abilities, being able to talk with a decent vocabulary, some ability to remember things, and a rudimentary understanding of cause and effect.  You can actually discuss things with them to an extent and it’s the age where they start to understand the carrot and stick method of discipline.  (My daughter doesn’t misbehave because she wants to hear about how good she is being, but my son cuts down on the naughty because he doesn’t want to waste perfectly good play time in time out.)

Yeah, I 'dlike to see the world burn. Or cover it in TP. Either.

They tend to become snitches around this age if they have siblings.  Not only do they narc on each other, but if one twin is getting into trouble the other interrupts the disciplinary process to say ‘Daddy I’m not painting the dog like he is.  I’m being GOOD.’

Now, here’s my holiday hook…..

This is also the age where the concept of special occasions sinks in and they start really understanding gifts.  I actually came to this ephiphay when we went to a birthday party for some twin friends of ours who were turning two.  There were quite a few young children at the party, but mine were the oldest at two and a half.  I was surprised when I noticed all the other kids were wandering around the playroom while my twins were sitting next to the mother of the birthday twins as she opened gifts.  Each gift was met by a casual glance from across the room by the guests of honor, and grand exclamations of joy and coolness from my twins.  By Christmas that same year (when they turned two and a half) those same birthday twins were a lot more interested in opening their presents and seeing other people open their own.

"It's art Daddy! Delicious, delicious art."

My wife is a professional photographer, and she generally considers early toddlerhood to be the hardest age to photograph well.  It’s possible to steer them somewhat, but mostly you just have to follow them and be ready for whatever opportunity for good pictures presents its self.  Then around two and a half years old the pictures get a lot better because the child understands the concept of ‘hold still and you can have this toy in a minute’.

Obviously the age of reason is going to vary from child to child.  Developmentally delayed children will get there a little later than average children and personality plays a large role in when it happens and to what extent it happens.  I’m also going to court some controversy because applying this to boys is a lot more slippery than it is with most girls.  Watching a boy and a girl grow up together from birth has made me a believer in the ‘sugar and spice’ and ‘snakes and snails’ stereotypes that have been around for so long.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts on the age of reason.  Or just a good tale of toddler destruction….

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