There is no limit to what you can buy for Santa's little spy. But if you're lacking time, money, or motivation to put "extra effort" into your kid's Elf on the Shelf, that’s more than OK—and you're not a bad parent. It's time to let yourself off the hook.

By Melissa Mills
December 09, 2020
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pile of elves for 'elf on the shelf'
Credit: Getty Images

Repeat after me: It's time to lower the bar when it comes to that dang Elf on the Shelf. And, by the way, you don't actually have to get one at all if you'd rather skip out on the new-ish holiday tradition.

Now I'm no Grinch—quite the opposite, actually, as Christmas is my favorite holiday and I'm all about starting new traditions with my own toddler—but lately it seems like the whole Elf on the Shelf thing is providing joy for kids, but guilt and stress for parents. It's even turning into an industry all its own.

In fact, I was today years old when I found out that some parents actually perform "surgery" on their elves to make them more pliable by cutting them open, inserting wire into the arms and legs, and then sewing them back up. Parents can even find "upgrade kits" online to transform their limp dolls into uber-bendable, magic elves able to embark on a whole new series of mischief.

I have a friend who skipped out on surgery for her son's elf and, instead, opted for sticking velcro strips to its hands to help move him around the house more easily. Other parents I know also roll out the red carpet for their child's elf, prepping for the big event way before Thanksgiving and buckling up for an action-packed December.

You can even find Elf on the Shelf tools, books, clothing, and miniature accessories at many of your favorite stores. And don't forget to buy another elf—or two, or three—for the siblings! But why do we have to improve the elf experience at all? Isn't there some magic simply in reading the book with your child and moving the elf around the house day after day? Aren't there simpler, free ways to create some magic for your little ones?

Don't get me wrong, if you want to spend money or go over the top when it comes to your kid’s elf or if you're the particularly crafty type—go for it! Who am I to judge? I just started the Elf on the Shelf tradition with my 2-year-old and am figuring out what he gets a kick out of and what I'm willing—and excited!—to do. It's all pretty easy now that he's so young, and I'm eager to use my imagination a bit more in the years to come, but there's no way I'm putting on my surgeon hat to make it all happen. I'm not even sure where our needle and thread are!

If you're overwhelmed by the idea of thinking of creative ways to surprise your kid day after day, exhausted by constantly seeing other parents post their elf's elaborate antics on social media, or simply can't afford all the bells and whistles, it's time to let yourself off the hook here. It's your kid—you do what you can and what you want with them! If you're feeling pressured to live up to a certain expectation or compete with other parents on social media—and if the current "norm" just isn't working for you—then try to let it all go. Keep things a little more low-key or skip out on an Elf on the Shelf altogether.

And, actually, let's not even consider this "lowering the bar." Let's consider this doing whatever the heck you want with your kids and only participating in the traditions that work for your family. Even amid the pandemic, there are plenty of easy, free, and socially distant ways to celebrate the holiday season—from virtual Santa and drive-through light shows to decorating cookies at home and hot cocoa-filled movie nights. Find one that speaks to you and your family and stick with it. No questions asked.

At the end of the day, your child's going to grow up and remember the time spent with you during the holidays and the love that filled the house—not every single thing a toy elf did or did not do.