"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
November 29, 2012
Why There is No Elf on My Shelf
by Hannah Bird

I find women absolutely fascinating. I am one so you’d think that would clear up some of the mystery. But really, it does almost nothing to help.

For instance, women seem to always be working at cross purposes. For a long time Relief Society meant a monthly crafting club. Now this is down to a few craft extravaganzas a year.

But what else was taught at these meetings? Organization. Decluttering. Could we just preemptively declutter our homes by not making crafts the eleven other months of the year?

Likewise we are now knee deep into helpful hints for surviving Christmas. Apparently the celebration of the birth of Christ has become so complex that it, like a knife fight, an open-seating budget flight, or Mondays, needs surviving. Every list includes some version of “scale back, focus on what’s important.”

If someone said, “Let’s institute a super labor-intensive holiday tradition that teaches your children incorrect principles about how life works and how they should behave while normalizing super-creepy behavior and making the focus of Christmas as convoluted and worldly as possible so that I can sell you a book and a doll,” we would all say no.

And yet, there is the Elf on the Shelf.

If you are not familiar with the Elf on the Shelf (and if you aren’t, please share your location so the rest of us know where to find sanctuary) here’s a quick rundown: The Elf on The Shelf purports to be a revival of a 1950’s tradition. You purchase a suitably retro looking elf and a storybook that explains the elf.

You see, Santa has deputized this elf to sit in your house and observe your children all day. At night the elf flies back to Santa and reports on the children’s behaviors. Every morning the children wake up to find the elf in a new place after a new wacky adventure.

Since for $24.99 you cannot buy a real elf, Mother gets to stay up at night coming up with new mischief for the elf to do. There are whole Pinterest boards dedicated to elf mischief. The elf can take all the ornaments off the tree or spool toilet paper everywhere or have a marshmallow fight. In short, this elf that is ostensibly evaluating the kids’ behavior is behaving like a liquored-up sailor on a three-day pass. Whee. Holiday Fun.

I know that my preternatural ability to be curmudgeonly in the face of holiday cheer is nearly legendary. My hatred for the dreaded “Christmas Shoes” song has been shouted from the rooftops. But this is more than my annual run at out-Scrooging Scrooge. This actually bothers me.

First, why do we do this to ourselves? Have you really gone through the holidays and thought, “I need to find something elaborate and new to do as a practical joke every night?” I don’t know a woman who seriously needs more to do during the holidays. How fun would April Fools be on day 30? But setting the mother’s well-being aside (as we so often seem to do), can we just look at this elf business logically?

Let’s set aside the fact that the elf looks like every toy that ever came alive in a scary movie and tried to eat someone’s face. I think his eyes are supposed to be mischievous, but instead he looks like he is just waiting to shriek “time to play” and gnaw through your Achilles tendon, leaving you unable to defend yourself. Yes, let’s set that aside (but not too far aside, safety first) too.

What does this teach kids?

  • It teaches them that there is an authority outside of parents and the Lord over the home.
  • It teaches them that we behave for extrinsic reasons.
  • It teaches them that good behavior is a commodity to bargain with.
  • Kids learn that the Elf may be naughty but expects goodness.
  • Not unimportantly, it follows up the dreadful message from Twitlight that it is perfectly acceptable for some creature to come to your house and watch you sleep if they claim that it is for you benefit.
  • It teaches children that some unseen bad behavior has no negative impact.
  • It teaches them that there must be ever-escalating entertainment and novelty.
  • And scariest of all, it teaches children that parents are so unsure of themselves that they must employ a little leverage.

My brother-in-law manages a mega bookstore. He reports that some parents are so anxious to have the elf come and lay down the law that he gets requests for the elf in September. Parents warn their kids that the elf is watching. Some elves even leave recriminating notes outlining a day’s naughty behaviors.

And now, I shall deeply annoy everyone. If you need an elf to address your child’s behavior, you are not doing your job.

There. I said it.

We are supposed to teach our kids right from wrong. It is our responsibility to teach them that goodness is its own reward. Goodness is happiness. It is our responsibility to use their young dreaming years to forge bonds that will compel us to let them live through years 13-17.

Already I can hear the reply, “It’s just fun. It’s not a big deal.” And I suppose on some days, I could have seen it that way. When I had a house full of knee-high people, the days of wonder looked endless. I thought I had time for everything.

When my eldest turned 18, I was nearly broken with the realization that the time that had seemed so limitless was gone. It was over. My heart broke for everything I was sure I had left undone. I was terrified of what she didn’t know.

Don’t buy an elf to make wonders for your children. They want you. The world (and neighbors) will tell them they want to buy the thing that everyone has bought. But in their hearts, there is no greater wonder for a child than time with their parents.

So put the elf away (I assume they burn beautifully). Be the magic yourself. The minutes you would have spent on a prank are so much better spent with your child. Catch snowflakes on black velvet. Make cocoa when you should all be in bed. Have a slumber party. Draw nativity pictures. Pretend that you don’t really hate Christmas carols and sing along.

Less bought, more you. Because someday you will be out of time. You will want to know that the things you taught on purpose and on accident were true.

For the record, if any child I love informs me that they are being watched by an elf when they sleep, I will arm them with pepper spray and a rape whistle. That’s just common sense. I will also explain that we are good because we must be ourselves for a very long time. And it’s much more fun when we are good.

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About Hannah Bird

I am me. I live at my house with my husband and kids. Mostly because I have found that people get really touchy if you try to live at their house. Even after you explain that their towels are fluffier and none of the cheddar in their fridge is green.

I teach Relief Society and most of the sisters in the ward are still nice enough to come.

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