Pros and Cons of the Elf on the Shelf Christmas Tradition

Two young sisters read in the living room by the Christmas tree with their Mom
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The Elf on the Shelf is a festive family Christmas tradition that continues to grow in popularity each year. The concept is that there are "scout elves" sent by Santa to the homes of kids who celebrate Christmas. These elves have magical powers and a special mission to fly to the North Pole nightly to report to Santa Claus what the kids in the household have been doing—particularly if they've been naughty or nice.

Many parents and kids alike enjoy the fun and games of including this yearly ritual in their Christmas celebrations. However, the Elf on the Shelf tradition may not be right for every family. Below, find out how Elf on the Shelf works and explore the possible pros and cons of bringing home a scout elf for your family this holiday season.

History of Elf on the Shelf

The scout elf tradition began with the popular children's storybook "The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition," which was published in 2005. The book was written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell.

Since then, millions of households now bring out their elf from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve for a yearly dose of yuletide shenanigans. In fact, over 15 million copies of the book have been sold.

How Elf on the Shelf Works

Starting the Elf in the Shelf tradition is easy. First, you'll buy the elf doll, which can be customized by gender, skin color, and eye color. Your chosen elf comes as a set of two items in a keepsake "The Elf on the Shelf" box. Inside the box, you'll find the hardcover storybook and your elf.

Read the Story

Reading the book with your children is key to the experience. The storybook explains everything you need to know about your elf as well as what to do to bring the story to life. Consider the story a clever instruction book for adults and an introduction to the elf's purpose for the kids.

The Elf on the Shelf company website also offers more in-depth information, including additional detail on the elf backstory, games, what to do if things don't go as planned, and other elf-related material.

Name Your Elf

A fun component of the tradition is that each family gets to name their own elf. At the end of each storybook, there's a full-page certificate that you customize with your family's name, date, and your elf's name to commemorate when you begin your Elf on the Shelf tradition. After you name your elf, visit the Elf on the Shelf website to register your elf. Your child will then receive a special message from Santa.

Hide Your Elf

The premise is that each night, your elf flies to the North Pole to tell Santa Claus whether your children have been naughty or nice. It's a cute way to keep the spirit of Santa alive—and encourage good behavior in your children in anticipation of Christmas (and hopefully all year round).

Each morning, the elf chooses a new vantage point from which to keep an eye on the kids. The night before Christmas, the elf flies off one last time to spend the year with Santa until reappearing next season.

Every night, a parent hides the elf in a new place. The children wake up each morning and search the house to see where the elf has reappeared—becoming a daily, holiday-themed hide-and-seek game with a sneaky elf.

Elf on the Shelf Rules

The golden rule of Elf on the Shelf is that the kids can't touch the elf. Otherwise, there are no other specific rules to follow. Kids are encouraged to talk to the elf but not to actively play with it—the idea is that the elf only moves and talks when kids are sleeping. The intention is to keep the mystery alive about the elf and to discourage kids from moving it and hiding it themselves, which might dampen the mystique of looking for it each morning.

The "no-touch" rule may be harder for some kids to follow than others.

For Elf on the Shelf magic to happen, the adults in the household will need to commit to moving the elf each night. Parents will also need to gauge how hard of a hiding spot to find for the elf. It should not be so easy that the child discovers it instantly but not so hard that a frustrated preschooler ends up in tears. Early on, parents may need to remind the kids to look for their elf buddy (and possibly point kids in the right direction) until the routine gets established.

Is Elf on the Shelf Right for Your Family?

Many families find that Elf on the Shelf is a fun way to start the day and get everyone into the holiday spirit. However, like many parenting decisions, there isn't one right answer about whether or not the Elf on the Shelf tradition is right for your family.

  • Family traditions can foster family bonding.

  • Kids look forward to their elf returning each year.

  • Searching for the elf each morning is a fun game for children (and adults).

  • Some parents enjoy creatively setting up unique scenarios and hiding spots for their elf.

  • You can pick your elf's name, gender, skin tone, and eye color—and how elaborately (or not) you hide the elf.

  • Adults need to hide the elf each night, which could end up feeling burdensome, especially year-after-year.

  • Kids can't touch or play with the elf, which may be a challenge for some kids.

  • Some families may not like the basic idea of the elf—that it's spying on their kids and reporting their behavior to Santa.

  • The elf is top-heavy with felt legs, which can make it challenging to bend and pose as desired.

Possible Benefits

The Elf on the Shelf concept provides a fun way for kids to interact with Santa (and of course, an elf). For many families, this tradition works to heighten holiday excitement between Thanksgiving and Christmas and provide a creative way for parents and kids to play a several weeks-long game of hide-and-seek together. Additionally, many parents welcome a holiday activity that's screen-free and gets their children moving.

Many parents enjoy the creative challenge of coming up with unique places (and situations) for their elf to be found. Kids often love discovering their elf caught in the act of holiday hijinks, such as hiding in the snack drawer.

Some parents also like that having a scout elf around may encourage kids to be on their best behavior, knowing that the elf (and Santa) is watching.

Possible Drawbacks

For some parents, however, the pressure and time it takes to come up with ever more elaborate scenarios for their elf (and any necessary cleanup) may feel more like another chore than holiday fun. Other parents might find that just having to remember to hide the elf each night can feel like too much.

While the company website does offer a host of excuses you can tell your child to explain finding the elf in the same spot, such as that the elf was testing the kids' observation skills, it's their favorite spot, or they were feeling tired, the burden of keeping the game alive still rests on the adults.

Some parents don't like the idea of a toy that tells kids that they are being spied on. Others don't like the message that kids should aim to behave well because they are being watched and/or to get gifts. Another common complaint questions why the toy can't be played with. Plus, some kids will most certainly want to touch it, which could create household conflict or misunderstandings.

If kids do touch the doll, the legend is that being handled drains the elf's magic, requiring the child to write an apology to Santa and administer a sprinkling of cinnamon to restore the elf's full powers.

Fun Ideas

If you choose to start this tradition, you can choose to follow "The Elf on the Shelf" book guidelines exactly or you can feel free to adapt the story to your family's preferences. For example, in some households, the family elf creates silly mischief each night, such as taking a "bubble bath" (use marshmallows) in the sink, playing dress-up with doll clothes, getting into the cookie jar, or making "snow" angles (use flour) on the kitchen table.

The point being that you can build upon the story to make the tradition your own if you desire. Here are some other ideas of ways to get the most fun out of adopting the Elf on the Shelf tradition:

  • After you pack away your elf on Christmas Eve, set out a small present from your elf to your children. It doesn't have to be a big gift. Candy canes, a book, a Christmas card with the date on it, or another small token can become part of your family tradition.
  • Google "Elf on the Shelf ideas" and you'll get plenty more tips on how to make your elf's stay memorable for your kids.
  • In 2011, "An Elf's Story: The Elf on the Shelf," a 30-minute animated TV special hit the airwaves. Watch the show with your family each year in addition to reading the storybook to bring the fun of the elf to life for your kids.
  • Pinterest has a variety of user-submitted suggestions for where to hide your elf each night. For example, position your elf at your computer's keyboard to make it look like the elf is writing Santa an email or hide your elf in the cupboards to make it look like he's raiding your candy stash. There are countless other ideas posted on the Internet and new ones are added every day.

A Word From Verywell

The Elf on the Shelf tradition is beloved by many but isn't for everyone. Your kids may be too old to enjoy it or you may not like the idea of an elf who spies on your children and runs to Santa to tattle. For many families, however, welcoming Elf on the Shelf into their lives from turkey day to Christmas is just the thing to brighten their holiday season.

By Apryl Duncan
Apryl Duncan is a stay-at-home mom and internationally-published writer with years of experience providing advice to others like her.