Crossing The Line Between Fun And Corruption: The Elf On The Shelf



Ever since I first encountered an “Elf on the Shelf” at a friend’s home, I have wrestled with the alleged tendency I have to perceive serious unethical consequences in trivial matters. I have wrestled long enough: the “Elf on the Shelf” is an unethical addition to a child’s home, and parents should think long and hard before subjecting their children to its sinister influence.

If you have been lucky enough to avoid this relatively new addition to American holiday traditions, here is what is going on, right from the Elf on the Shelf website, where you can buy these small KGB agents in pajamas:

“The Elf on the Shelf® is a special scout elf sent from the North Pole to help Santa Claus manage his naughty and nice lists. When a family adopts an elf and gives it a name, the elf receives its Christmas magic and can fly to the North Pole each night to tell Santa Claus about all of the day’s adventures. Each morning, the elf returns to its family and perches in a different place to watch the fun. Children love to wake up and race around the house looking for their elf each morning. There are two simple rules that every child knows when it comes to having an elf. First, an elf cannot be touched; Christmas magic is very fragile and if an elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole. Second, an elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! An elf’s job is to watch and listen. Elves typically appear in their families’ homes at the beginning of the holiday season (around Thanksgiving in the U.S.). On Christmas Eve, the elves return to the North Pole with Santa Claus–until next year!”

The creepiest part of the Santa Claus tradition has always been the suggestion that St. Nick is spying on kids the year round, and will take retributive action against the children he judges as “bad.” My parents never passed along that part, which exploits Santa for fear-based social control ( a non ethical consideration-based strategy) as well as rationalizing third party incursions on personal privacy. I remember being alarmed, as a child, the first time I paid attention to the lyrics of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and asked my father if it was true that I was being watched by some old perv while I was sleeping or awake. He said, “It’s just a song. That’s Gene Autrey’s theory.” The Marshalls were Roy Rogers fans, so the explanation  was persuasive.

A mother-daughter team, however, decided to extrapolate from Gene’s idea and devise the means by which Santa handled his surveillance, and their invention, launched as a children’s book, caught on. Now the tiny spies are everywhere, and, we are told, kids love their magic elves, and parents love surprising the kiddies by finding new places to put them each morning leading up to Christmas.

Yes, well, Winston loved Big Brother by the end of “1984,” too. Parents, especially in this day of NSA incursions on every aspect of our private communications, need to teach their children to guard their privacy and cherish it, and also to be wary of authority figures who deputize underlings  to watch them and report back to superiors, with negative consequences if what they report is deemed wrong or inappropriate by someone in power. The Elf on the Shelf teaches children to surrender their privacy to Big Brother At The North Pole, and like it.

I don’t care if the tradition is fun, and neither should responsible parents.

It’s bad for society, and dangerous.

It is wrong.


Sources: Elf on the Shelf, Newsday, BuzzFeed

17 thoughts on “Crossing The Line Between Fun And Corruption: The Elf On The Shelf

  1. Hello, Jack,

    First, I back you up on analyzing things people call “trivial”. Simple cases are good pedagogy.

    Small things are only small depending how we look at them. “To see a world in a grain of sand, or a Heaven in a wild flower”.

    The relevant way to look at this one is that it settles straight into the unexamined assumptions of uncritical children. In other words, it’s not even small.

    • Thanks for the support—I don’t think this one is small either. And yet—I googled this topic expecting to find some other commentators who were alert to the subversive elements of this new tradition. Actually, I expected to find many. I didn’t. That worries me too.

  2. Flying in reports? Santa just knows through magic and the elves have better things to do than hang around on some kind of surveillance detail. (I mean, really saying they’re alive but can’t move is cruelty to elves or a Dr Who weeping statue thing… the elves should picket those houses like Dobby in Potter if they aren’t decorations)

  3. I have to admit we succumbed and have “Justin” and “Elizabeth” who visit every year for a couple of weeks in December. However, while we started out with the surveillance concept we dropped it pretty quickly. I found it hard to instill discipline and at the same time claim with a straight face that the creepy-faced doll could make or break Christmas. Now the elves just show up and play mischievous tricks that make the kids laugh. There is no mention of behavior, Santa’s list etc. although the elves did leave for a while after a particularly bad melt-down last week. Apparently there is now a “touchable elf”; I don’t know what the concept behind that is but I haven’t and don’t plan on giving in to that.

  4. It is creepy. We do not have an elf at our house. My first grader came home from school telling me all these kids have these elves at their houses and what is that all about? My response was,”you don’t need a creepy elf watching you and reporting back to Santa. You make the right choices because you should, not because of a creepy stalker.” Okay I may have left out the word stalker at the time…. The elf on the shelf concept has weirded me out since it came out.

  5. geez, sorry but I had to get one after my kids gave me a child protective services elf after I attempted to discipline them with a long timeout.:)

  6. Firstly there are no new traditions. Santa-related behaviour is either traditional (cheap and time consuming) or a marketing excercise (expensive and packaged). Parents will now have to study the back story of the elf on the shelf like a brief. Errors not permitted. Explaining Santa in inventive ways to satisfy and delight innocent-but-oh-so-quick young minds is a happy chore each year and it should be. Outsourcing any magic to some off the peg, ready mythed, insta-legended, taiwan stitched, blackleg bean bag with a CCTV camera in its mind is outlandish corporate devilment, innately unsettling, disturbs the parental creative flow of hogwash – and completely spoils the fun. And that’s how you know the elf on the shelf is the anti Santa.

    Because Father Christmas is magic. He magics parents minds by radio at the same time in the same way every year so they just have to go and buy presents from the list you sent to him at the North Pole. Of course they Think it is their idea and that there is no Santa. Pfah! Then on Christmas Eve he magics on his sleigh with the reindeer, but with electric waves, through every power line so he goes very fast, like woosh too fast to see, not just chimneys like the olden days but into the electric fire and the gas boiller and the TV too. And he does magic to all the presents and the tree and the children and the parents and the food – and that’s christmas. Which is why, even when you are a very big grown up lady, when you open a nice present from someone, if you listen really carefully – you will still hear sleigh bells and still smell snow.

    Organic, tailor-made, home-cooked bullshit. Never the same twice. Maybe not ethical but my best recipe. Better than an ‘elf inspector’ anyway . Happy holidays.

    • In all likelihood, it would probably be the camera that’s made in Taiwan; we outsource the stitching to the Chinese nowadays. 😛

      (Look at me being a pendant.)

  7. Careful Jack – you’re infringing on Freedom of Religion.

    This is no dottier, and considerably less harmful, than many other Religious beliefs.

    Oh yes, I agree with you completely, but you’ve left yourself open to attack from those who believe there’s a “War on Christmas”. Fortunately, in the USA, “attack” and “war” refer to mere written and verbal combat, not actual threats to get you fired, or even of physical violence.

    An apparently growing number of people do believe in magic, in demonic possession and “discerning the spirits”. In some ways, I can’t blame them, we have a sufficiently advanced technology for Clarke’s 3rd Law to come into play.

    This can turn malignant – witch-burning, literal demonising and dehumanising of opponents to justify barbarity. As with this candidate for Colorado General Assembly House District 15:

    A list of his endorsements is at!gordons-colorado/ch6q

  8. I don’t think everything has to be an ethics dillema.

    I am Jewish. I was raised without Santa. When a classmate asked me how I could grow up without Santa my retort was how could you grow up with your parents lying to you.

    That being said, growing up with Santa isn’t going to make someone turn into some 1984 big brother advocate who will have no problem with NSA surveilance on you. Neither will having an elf on the shelf.

    I think sometimes you just gotta let things go.

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