The start of the holiday season comes with trees to trim, cookies to bake, and, for many families, the arrival of the Elf of the Shelf. For those who aren’t familiar with this tradition, it involves a small elf doll sent by Santa to keep an eye on children during the Christmas season. The elf moves around the house each day, often getting into mischief and creating a scavenger hunt for kids each morning.
While I love seeing the creative and often hilarious elf scenes parents choose to set up for their kids each day, this is a tradition from which my family has opted out. Here’s why.
To practice self-care
I love the holidays, but let’s face it: Being the chief magic maker for your family is exhausting. From wrestling the decorations out of storage to running out to buy a last-minute gift for a forgotten relative, the to-do list is endless. On top of this, our schedules are disrupted with holiday parties where we inevitably stay up too late and eat too much, or school events where we dash out of work to listen to our kids sing adorable, off-tune carols. No matter what, we’re always running behind.
But the thing is, we don’t have to do it all. There’s no gold medal for wrapping the most presents, no Oscar for staging the perfect family photo in front of the fireplace. We can and should give ourselves a break. We deserve rest, even during December. For me, the only way to accomplish this has been to say no to things–including an elf I need to remember to move around every night.
To focus on values vs. behaviors
My kids have already latched on to the idea of Santa as someone who keeps a checklist of naughty vs. nice behavior. Having a hypervigilant elf around only reinforces the focus on “good” behavior as a quid pro quo for getting gifts. Whereas my goal is to keep them focused on the concepts of kindness and generosity rather than being worried about an elf policing their “bad” behavior.
This is definitely not a perfect process! I’ve had my fair share of “Santa is watching so you better share with your brother” moments, but overall I find that talking to my kids more about values and less about behavior is a message that resonates year-round.
To ease the holiday pressure
Emotions can run high during the holidays, for adults as well as children. The pressure to manage all the tasks and events that come with the season can make it hard to be our best selves. Kids feel this, too. There’s so much anticipation that comes with waiting and preparing for everything, from school holiday concerts to family celebrations. Most kids are already working really hard to be patient and regulate their emotions, and for some, the Elf on the Shelf is one more layer of pressure they don’t need.
To teach accountability
I talk a lot with my kids about trust and responsibility, which, I tell them, means doing the right thing even when no one is watching. Especially for my oldest, I try to give certain freedoms to encourage his personal accountability. I trust him to play outside on his own without leaving the yard. I trust him to do his homework on his device without playing games instead. He knows these privileges can be rescinded if he abuses that trust, and generally, he makes good choices. We talk about how he has a conscience, a voice inside him that will tell him if he’s doing the right thing. Introducing an elf who is always monitoring him and reporting back clashes with all of these teachings, something I’m not willing to sacrifice.
To battle FOMO
One of my greatest fears as a parent is that my kids are missing out. It’s what drives me to enroll them in swim and piano lessons and to give in when they beg me to take them to the new Paw Patrol movie that all their friends are seeing. And yet, I also want to teach them to be okay with missing out—that life gets tricky when you spend too much time trying to keep up with everyone else.
It’s inevitable that one day they’ll ask me why we don’t have an Elf on the Shelf at Christmas time like many of their friends do. This will be my chance to explain that different families have different traditions and beliefs and that the elf isn’t part of ours. And that while not having something their friends have can feel uncomfortable, they can focus on the holiday rituals and routines our family does have, and take a more active role in helping to create them.
To prioritize joy
Sometimes we get so busy creating holiday magic for our kids that we forget we also deserve to experience the joy of the season. But we owe it to ourselves to think about what kind of holiday memories we want to have in future years, not just the ones we’re creating for others. And, personally, mine don’t involve getting a reminder on my phone each night to move a toy elf around.
Maybe you do get great joy from setting up elaborate scenes with the Elf on the Shelf every night–that’s great! By all means, carry on. For me, though, joy comes from snuggling in front of the Christmas tree with my kids and reading their favorite holiday books, or sipping mulled cider while I wrap presents and listening to the Nutcracker soundtrack for the millionth time. The point is that we should all focus on the things that feel meaningful and pleasurable to us.
There’s no one right way to do Christmas, or any holiday for that matter. If your celebration involves the Elf on the Shelf, I support you. But if your family isn’t doing this particular tradition, you’re not alone. The most important thing is to do what works best for your family. After all, the holiday season is about love, joy, and togetherness with the ones you love, no matter which traditions you choose to embrace.