How Holiday Traditions Like Elf on the Shelf Fuel Child Development

Siblings making crafts at the table

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The holiday season is a joyful and exciting time for parents and children, especially little ones. And while every family celebrates in a uniquely special way, building traditions beginning when your children are small can be incredibly beneficial to their mental and emotional growth and development.

Take the Elf on the Shelf, for example. A staple in the homes of many families who celebrate Christmas, this little red-suited elf moves around the house during the holiday season and provides kids with a tangible connection to the mythical story of Santa Claus and his elves.

Traditions like this one that use elements of fun and surprise can help teach children valuable skills, plus tie them to the holiday and the special time of year. Here's how to create rituals and traditions that will be best for your children developmentally and the ways these rituals will help them grow and develop into caring, creative, and intelligent adults.

Psychologist and children's author Laura Anderson Kirby, PhD advises against using Elf on the Shelf as a discipline tool. "I recommend using Elf on the Shelf purely as a fun activity with your children, as opposed to using it as a tool to control behavior," Kirby says. "When we tell children that they will lose presents if the elf sees them behaving poorly, this only increases anxiety and does not lead to long-term behavioral change."

How to Build Lasting Traditions

Traditions help children process and understand the holidays and their importance. "Rituals should be supportive and very joyful and help kids anticipate transitions," explains Claire Lerner, MSW, a child development and parenting specialist and founder of Lerner Child Development. "These can help them prepare emotionally and feel connected to the people they are going to see in advance."

Indeed, one of the biggest benefits of creating traditions, especially from when your kids are young, is that they foster an emotional connection between the child, the family, and the holiday. When kids feel this connection, they will be able to relax and enjoy the holiday festivities that much more.

"Traditions are important to maintain and pass on because they represent foundations of cultures, validate important beliefs, and affirm our grounding as human beings," adds Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, CA.

One key in establishing traditions and being sensitive to how your kids are feeling about them is to have a conversation around them. "Talk to them about the tradition so you can help them make sense of it—ask them what they think about it," suggests Lerner. "Purely from a child development perspective, what we know is kids need you to be their most trusted resource of understanding the world. The more kids can express their thoughts and feelings, the better."

Claire Lerner, MSW

What are the important messages this holiday sends and what are things we can do leading up to it that help our kids feel connected to it?

— Claire Lerner, MSW

To that end, holiday rituals should reinforce the message of the holiday, whether that's togetherness, family, love, community, or something else. "It's about finding ways to take a step back and say 'what are the important messages this holiday sends and what are things we can do leading up to it that help our kids feel connected to it?'" says Lerner.

Why You Should Create Traditions

When created mindfully, traditions can go far towards helping kids connect to their families and develop their minds. One of the biggest reasons: They create lasting memories that are built upon year after year.

"Memorializing experiences of a child’s life within the context of family living is an important aspect of bonding, connecting, and reinforcing secure attachment and unique meaning in a child’s life," explains Dr. Mendez.

Here, some of the other developmental benefits of creating holiday traditions.

Strengthen Family Ties

Traditions help tie kids to other members of their family and to their family's past. "Rituals are personally meaningful to a family, something they’ve handed down for generations," says Lerner. "While it helps the child prepare for enjoying and looking forward to the holiday, it also binds them to your family history. So in that way, they can be very powerfully positive."

Mayra Mendez, PhD

The practice of handing down traditions provides grounding for a child and supports the building of trust, family values, and identity.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD

This connection to family helps them build valuable skills and qualities. "The practice of handing down traditions provides grounding for a child and supports the building of trust, family values, and identity, and opens the doors of opportunity for understanding the past, making sense of the present, and building on the future," says Dr. Mendez.

For young children, it can be difficult to fully grasp the size of their family, especially if some of their relatives only turn up around the holidays. Having traditions in place can help reinforce these bonds.

Prevent Overwhelm

The holiday season may be considered the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be overstimulating for children who aren't used to the lights, noise, and company. "Especially for younger kids and kids who are temperamentally more sensitive, the holidays can be amazing and full of joy and excitement but they also can be overwhelming," says Lerner. "Establishing rituals can help these kids manage during these times."

It's no secret that parents have a lot on their plates during the holidays, so having these touchstones to help prevent overwhelm in their kids can provide peace of mind. "Big group events, seeing family they haven’t seen in a long time, sometimes kids' reactions, are perplexing to parents," Lerner says. "Rituals can be really helpful especially for those kids because it helps them anticipate the event."

Build Imagination

Many of the traditional holiday rituals, such as the Elf on the Shelf, Santa Claus, and the Hanukkah story about the oil lasting eight nights, require kids to suspend disbelief and embrace the fantastic—and doing so can be a boon for their mental development. "Exposure to fantastical elements such as in stories commonly told during the holiday season supports the development of flexible thinking in young children," Dr. Mendez explains.

Mayra Mendez, PhD

Fantasy helps to promote children's development of symbolism, analogical reasoning, and differentiation between real and imaginary concepts.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD

And the benefits don't stop there. "Fantasy helps to promote children's development of symbolism, analogical reasoning, and differentiation between real and imaginary concepts," Dr. Mendez adds. "Foundational to development is for children to learn how to build on information, generalize and transfer acquired knowledge to everyday situations."

While stories and traditions that involve fantastical elements can help children build their imagination, it's also important to establish a line between the stories you share and real life, says Lerner. "For very young children who have a rudimentary understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality it can be very confusing," she explains. "They don't have perspective, so it can cause more stress because they don’t quite understand what’s happening."

For this reason, Lerner suggests sharing stories, acknowledging that they are stories, and then encouraging children to share their thoughts and feelings. "For Hanukkah, for example, you talk about how this was an amazing event and we do the candles because it honors the resilience of our people and this is what it represents." 

Promote Critical Thinking

One of the most important skills that children start to develop when they're young that helps them understand the world is the ability to think critically, or analyze an issue or situation and then make a decision about it. While this is certainly a skill that's nurtured in the classroom, holiday traditions can support its development as well.

"Critical thinking is reinforced when the developing mind takes to account both elements of fantasy and reality and makes sense of the information in a way that is socially acceptable within the familiar context of the child’s world experience," says Dr. Mendez. As long as it's done in an environment in which parents are present to help children work through the information and stories presented to them, the holidays provide a joy-filled backdrop on which to develop these skills.

Mayra Mendez, PhD

Critical thinking is reinforced when the developing mind takes to account both elements of fantasy and reality and makes sense of the information in a way that is socially acceptable within the familiar context of the child’s world experience.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD

And critical thinking is not the only educational skill kids can develop during the holiday season, adds Dr. Mendez. "The holiday traditions can promote necessary skills such as language development, cooperative interactions, and appreciation for cultural practices."

Ideas for Holiday Traditions

Many families have traditions and rituals that have been passed down or that they enjoyed as kids. But if you want to start your own, there are plenty to choose from! Here are some ideas for kid-friendly activities and traditions that will help your children grow:

  • Having an advent calendar
  • Shopping for a Christmas tree
  • Lighting the menorah for Hanukkah or the Mishumaa Saba for Kwanzaa
  • Putting up decorations
  • Cooking or baking together
  • Writing and sending holiday cards
  • Giving back (volunteering, donating food or clothes, etc.)
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  1. The Elf on the Shelf. What is the Elf on the Shelf?

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