DECEMBER is here, which means the age-old tradition of elf on the shelf is now running rampage across our social media. These sinister (or cute, depending on your view) Santa spies are popping up everywhere. So much so that one former primary school teacher, Emma Shingleton, has said the concept may be bad for the mental health of our kids, and cause them stress.

Old tradition? I don’t remember elves on shelves in my youth. When did this thing start?

No, by old, I mean it’s been going for around 15 years, inspired by a book published in the United States, and is now suddenly so popular here you would think Queen Vic had started it. The idea is that Santa sends his elves out to see who is being naughty or nice, which in practice means that every day in December a sneaky, watchful elf is moved around the house by a parent.

So, what’s the problem with it? Isn’t it just a bit of fun?

If the elves were Facebook accounts and Santa was Mark Zuckerberg or the Russian Intelligence Agency, would you be saying what’s the problem?

Hang on. Elves are not some surveillance capitalism mechanism. They’re dolls.

True, but they are also dolls that kids are being told are observing them every minute for the occasion that they slip up and do something bad. As Emma Shingleton said, “do we really want our children thinking they’re being watched every moment of the day by these festive home invaders? Could the expectation be setting some children up to fail?”

So she wants us to do away with the elves? That seems a bit killjoy.

No, she wants us to make them into “helpful” little elves whom we use to teach our kids how to do good things, rather than elves to scare them into being well behaved.

It’s mental elf and safety gone mad! But hang on... haven’t we always been telling kids that they had better be good or Santa won’t give them any presents?

Yes, and also generations of parenting experts have been saying that message might not be good for the children – particularly given the real reason many kids don’t get a sackful of treats is because their parents can’t afford it, rather than because hey are “naughty” rather than “nice”. As Jessica McCrory Calarco, writing in The Atlantic last year, put it:“Maybe the problem with Christmas is not the little guy on the shelf, but the big guy in the sleigh. After all, he’s the one who’s keeping the list. So perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at what Santa is teaching our kids.”


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