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Is Elf on the Shelf Psychologically Damaging Your Kids?


"It seems to undermine what the parents do."

Diana Haronis/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

Elf on the Shelf has become a cultural phenomenon and a Christmas fixture for a great many families, with parents typically telling their children that the doll is Santa's little helper who monitors and reports kids' behavior during the holiday season.

But psychologists are warning that the cute tradition might actually be a bad influence on kids, specifically when it comes to reinforcing positive and negative behaviors.

"This is really not the way kids need to be told what to do and what not to do," Dr. Bilal Ghandour, a psychologist in Charlotte, North Carolina, told Time Warner Cable News. "It seems to undermine what the parents do. Here are the parents taking care of the kids for 50 weeks a year, and then for a couple of weeks you listen to Santa."

Rather than a litmus test for naughty and nice, Ghandour said that parents should use the elf, instead, as a game — one that doesn't tie the holiday symbol to punishment or reward.

And he isn't alone in his critiques. Dr. David Kyle Johnson penned a piece in 2012 for Psychology Today titled, "Let’s Bench The Elf on the Shelf," during which he, too, discussed the potential pitfalls of the children's tradition.

Johnson, who has also vocally argued against lying about Santa in the past, believes that the "Elf on the Shelf is basically a steroid shot for the Santa Lie."

"Your children rely on you to give them accurate information about the way the world is, and you should want them to trust and believe what you say," he wrote. "But finding out that you have been lying to them – and even been playing an elaborate joke on them … has the possibility of significantly eroding their ability to trust you."

Johnson argues that it is damaging to stop negative behavior with promising a future benefit for children, calling it an easy, but bad way to get kids in line.

"Children need to learn self-control and to do the right thing for its own sake," he wrote. "But a child who behaves because the Elf on the Shelf is watching and will tell Santa — that child is learning the exact opposite: that how they behave should be dictated by the rewards they receive."

Diana Haronis/Moment Editorial/Getty Images Diana Haronis/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

The psychologist added that parents should consider what happens when children grow up and realize that behaving badly — stealing or lying — can also yield rewards.

Dr. Laura Pinto, a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Canada, has also warned that Elf on the Shelf could make children more open to surveillance, sharing her views in a recent paper titled, "Who's the Boss."

"Although the Elf on the Shelf has received positive media attention and has been embraced by millions of parents and teachers, it nevertheless represents something disturbing and raises an important question," Pinto wrote. "When parents and teachers bring the Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?"

Others, of course, see no issue with the holiday token of cheer.

Read more about the debate here.

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