For hundreds of years, kids have been warned about getting coal in their stocking, and we sing that Santa "knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." The most recent, and extremely popular, behavioral tool is the Elf on the Shelf (joined by friends such as the Mensch on a Bench). The idea is that a friendly "spy" has been sent to make sure children are behaving in a way that will ensure they get the gifts they are expecting. It's all meant in good fun, but it's important to take a step back and think about the message we're conveying to kids and how this ritual is being received by them.
For most kids, a few reminders about behavior during the holiday season are taken in stride, but for others, the idea of someone watching their behavior and reporting back to the North Pole may be too much to handle.
So what is the most constructive and positive way to talk about Elf on the Shelf and why he's hanging around the house?
Instead of telling children that the Elf on the Shelf is going to tattle on them, I suggest parents tell their kids that he is there to observe and report good behavior. This will encourage the kind of behavior you want to see instead of drawing attention to the sort of behavior you don't want to see.
It's also important to consider the message you're giving kids about holiday presents. Are they given no matter what out of love, or are they a reward for good behavior? Placing too much pressure on the link between gifts and behavior can be confusing to kids and can add extra stress in December.
Parents have to remember that the holidays are not only a time of great excitement for kids, they are also filled with over-the-top stimulation, intense social situations, and other conditions—including stress—that may cause kids to behave a bit differently than usual. It's important to give them some slack.
The key in all of this is to try and find balance. If your child enjoys having the Elf on the Shelf as part of the fun, then keep playing with him. But if your child is starting to get anxious or is asking if Santa will find out that she made a little mistake and did something naughty, it's probably a good time to put him away and have a conversation with your child about how we all make mistakes sometimes. In this case, reassure your child that her actions are important all year, but that they don't determine whether or not you love her or give her gifts.
It's always been a little frustrating to me that parents focus so closely on good behavior for one month rather than for the full calendar year. With that in mind, I'd like to suggest a new tradition. The end of the year is a good time for reflection. How about in addition to having your kids make a list of toys they want, you also ask them to make a list of things they've done in the past 12 months that they are proud of? Or, have your Elf on the Shelf messages reinforce examples of great behavior during the year—"It was really awesome when you helped your friend when people were making fun of her on the playground." This will give your children a chance to highlight and recognize instances where they were well-behaved, treated others with respect, and contributed to the well-being of the family.
Dr. Rachel Busman is a senior clinical psychologist in the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute.