Is a tiny elf watching your kids this Christmas? Picture: Susan Windmiller
Is a tiny elf watching your kids this Christmas? Picture: Susan Windmiller

Elf on the Shelf isn’t cute, it’s creepy

It's that time of the year when the Christmas tree goes up, carols start playing in the supermarket, and your own Orwellian spy will descend upon the house to surveil your children.

Wait … what?

Yes, it's Elf On The Shelf season, of course.

The annual craze has become increasingly popular in Australia since the teeny doll first appeared in American houses back in 2004. Since then, according to CNN, more than 11 million elves have been sold worldwide.

For those unfamiliar with its deeply creepy presence, the elf appears on a shelf in your home on 1 December each year, watches your children all day, and reports back to Santa each night as to whether said children have been naughty or nice. The next day the elf magically moves to a new hiding spot, and on and on it goes until either parents give up and the kids realise the whole thing is a hoax, or Christmas passes for another year.

Like all trends involving children, Elf On The Shelf has become huge on social media thanks to competitive parents hoping to out-shelf each other.

As far as I can gather, you earn extra parent points by creating handcrafted and elaborate setups for your elf each night and then sharing it on social media in some sort of Christmas-themed #humblebrag.

The Elf is watching, even when you snack. Picture: Instagram
The Elf is watching, even when you snack. Picture: Instagram

Is your elf simply sitting on a banister? Not trying hard enough! Is it taking a break in the refrigerator door next to the mayonnaise? Puh-lease. What about if your elf is putting the finishing touches on a replica of the Taj Mahal featuring individual oil portraits of every family member arranged in a star shape that is also edible? Now you've got the idea, lady!

I don't have kids, and yet this idea of parenting already seems exhausting.

And with this kind of annual fanfare, it's no surprise this Elf On A Shelf malarky is big business. There seems to be no end to competitive family-ing.

In my day, it was whether your parents bought you a brand new Nintendo or not. These days, it's whether your Elf is wearing 'couture' clothing. (I shit you not, there are 'superhero girl' elves and Hawaiian elves. You can now buy an elf-themed Saint Bernard toy to encourage your kids to be more giving. There's an Elf On The Shelf animated special. You can even buy the damn thing clothes.)

If that isn't disturbing, nothing is.

Part of teaching kids ethical and moral behaviour is to ensure they are able to make the right choices without the threat of punishment. To ensure that they choose the right path, even when someone isn't watching. In other words, we want them to choose to be good, because that's the right choice, not because they'll be rewarded for it or because they fear retribution from a prying elf who has the ear of Santa.

Conning your kids into behaving might seem like an easy fix, but it’s more problematic in the long run. Picture: Susan Windmiller
Conning your kids into behaving might seem like an easy fix, but it’s more problematic in the long run. Picture: Susan Windmiller

Conning your kids into behaving might seem like an easy fix in the moment, but encouraging children to modify their behaviour for the intrinsic value of being a 'good' person, versus teaching them to modify their behaviour only when being watched means they learn pretty quickly that if they aren't 'caught', then no one can punish them.

Even more damaging is the possibility that you're teaching your children that challenging perceived authority figures is bad, while being obedient is good. Which might make sense in the black and white world of a toddler, but what does that mean for the future, when more complicated politics is at play?

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure when we had to read 1984 at school it wasn't a manifesto on how to best run society via 24/7 surveillance from a Big Brother-style entity. And I'm almost certain that The Crucible's point about the McCarthy trials wasn't to encourage you to use the threat of 'dobbing people in' as a way to modify perceived bad behaviour.

Perhaps your child doesn't need to prove how good they are to other people. Perhaps they can just be good (and not brag about it on social media.)

But then what do I know? I'm just an opinions columnist who doesn't have kids. Now leave me be with my Shiraz on a Shelf.

Bianca O'Neill is a Melbourne-based writer. @biancaoneill_

This Elf went a little too hard on the chocolate. Picture: Instagram
This Elf went a little too hard on the chocolate. Picture: Instagram