This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.
Every December, parents can be found scrambling-in a lot of gift-wrapped, sugar-encrusted, gingerbread- and peppermint-flavored ways-to infuse the Christmas season after some extra spirit. We do not just want our youngsters to possess a happy holiday; we want these to have confidence in things they can’t see, and know that the world is really a place filled with love and magic.
In the final several years, one Christmas tradition has promised to assist parents do exactly that. The Elf in stock set (with picture book and doll) are available in every store as soon as Christmas music starts playing over the loudspeakers, and it appears like nearly every child-filled home has one of these simple ubiquitous elves watching them over throughout the holidays.
Except mine. I do not do Elf on the Shelf with my kids, because even though it promises to serve up a healthy dose of Christmas magic, I’m worried about the real message it sends.
The Elf’s story is simple: Arriving as a scout in the North Pole, he (or she) finds a spot within your house to see your daily activities, then flies home every evening to report on them. It’s the parents’ job to make sure little Snowball or Jubilee ends up in a different spot every morning prior to the kids awaken, to maintain the illusion that magic means the Elf to visit all over the world while everyone was sleeping.
Of course, the Elf can focus totally on the great things your family does, but it’s explained in the book and promotional materials that his purpose is to help Santa manage the official Naughty and Nice lists. Quite simply, the elf serves as a motivation to your kids to become “good” during the holidays, or else their naughty behavior will reported to Santa.
Ever since my oldest son, now seven, was big enough to understand what goes on at Christmas, the thought of a Naughty and Nice list has made me uncomfortable. When kids misbehave, it’s in reaction to something in their environment. They’re tired or hungry, scared or stressed or confused. This is especially true for little kids, but even as mine grow older, I’ve found it still applies. I do not always respond with patience and understanding when my children act out (far from it!), but I know my job would be to help them learn how you can manage their big emotions-not label those emotions as inherently “bad” or “good.”
To tell my overtired, overstimulated two-year-old that he’s going on the naughty list when he’s using a tantrum feels unfair. To inform my seven-year-old that Santa won’t be bringing him any toys while he won’t clean his room or finish his schoolwork seems ineffective. What happens when Christmas is over, and I can’t use Santa as motivation anymore? Basically want to parent consistently, I need a disciplinary system that works 12 months out of the year, not merely one.
And how about following through on those threats if my kids don’t turn their behavior around? I’ve heard stories of parents who “cancelled” Christmas for kids who acted poorly, but I have no aim of actually withholding presents from my children. I don’t want to be that parent, and I don’t want to obtain that kind of Christmas. However, I’m a proponent of saying what i’m saying: if I tell my kids they’re going on the Naughty list for not sharing their toys or not using politeness, exactly what does it mean when Christmas arrives and there are gifts underneath the tree anyway? I worry that sort of inconsistency could be confusing and would set a poor precedent based on how consequences are handled within our house.
Either way, promising a visit from Santa to encourage “good” behavior from my children feels manipulative. More to the point, it seems like the precise complete opposite of the Christmas spirit I’ve found myself chasing every year. I’m not going my kids to view the holiday as a transaction. If I behave, Santa brings me presents. Basically don’t, I get nothing.
Instead of making Santa and his watchful elves a part of my parenting in December, I talk to my kids about all the gifts-material and otherwise-the season provides. I emphasize charity and forgiveness and hope, all of which can be freely given and received without conditions. I tell my children that we don’t celebrate Christmas because we are perfectly well-behaved people. We don’t give each other gifts because we have gone a whole month without making mistakes, getting angry, being selfish, or feeling grouchy. We’re humans and sometimes we all do human things, but we love each other through all of it-unconditionally. Christmas is a lovely time to remember that.
So should you arrived at my house this season, you will not find a North Pole Elf sitting on any one of my shelves. I’m not going my children to think they’re only worthy of the special moment of Christmas if they have been “good.” I put presents for my kids under our tree to exhibit them that they are loved no matter who they really are, what they’ve said or done, or how they’ve behaved.
I think there’s an awful lot of Christmas spirit found in that.