Elf on the Shelf A.K.A. Big Brother

The Elf on the Shelf package.
The Elf on the Shelf package.

I think I have been living in a closet for the last 9 years. I turned to my collegue at Kaleidoscope the other day and was like:

“Some lady called to see if we had Elf on the Shelf, do we have that? What is that?”

My collegue’s eyebrow raised and she grinned (dare I say a little maniacally), “You mean ‘Narc on the Shelf’?”

She then described to me, and showed me (because every children’s book store worth their salt has this book), the thing that has become a Holiday phenomenon to love or hate. For those of you that don’t know: Elf on the Shelf is a book and toy combination that was first self-published in 2005 by a mother-daughter duo in the States. In clever Christmas rhyme the book tells the tale of a little Elf who keeps an eye on a family during the day and at night flies back to Santa to give him a report on their activity and behaviour only to return to the same family in the morning and watch all over again. The fiction is made reality as the book comes with a little Elf who will gain magic once he/she/dark-skinned-he has been given a name. Each morning the family can find the Elf in a different hiding spot.

On the one hand parents on the internet adore having the Elf on their side with their unruly children for the month of December, that or they make it a fun Holiday tradition where the kids are involved and seek out the Elf’s new hiding spot and what he’s been up to every morning (or, usually, some combination therein). Pinterest, Facebook and Tumblr are LITTERED with Elf on the Shelf photos from parents and families that are enjoying making this a contemporary Holiday tradition.

I’m not a parent yet, but the idea of this little Elf spying on me and my children in order to monitor behaviour strikes that dystopian 1984 Orwellian chord you all know I have within me.


Forgive that this post is in no way original because: The other hand holds an explosive reaction against the surveillance state and the complacence to that surveillance that Elf on the Shelf fosters in our children. I am in this hand for a couple of reasons.

  1. I mean, we already have Santa Clause, a complete stranger, entering our houses in the middle of the night and leaving neatly wrapped packages containing who knows what – alright, I made it sound ominous, but from an outsiders perspective, it does sound a little odd.
  2. It doesn’t seem to me that acting good under the threat of no presents, an external reward, is a healthy lesson. “You were good Timmy, have a Transformer.” Now, does Timmy feel good because he was a good boy, or does he feel good because he got a new Optimus Prime? This is a problematic reward structure (even though Optimus Prime is always awesome).
  3. I understand that the threat of “no presents” may never be carried out – but doesn’t that undermine the parents authority as well? To me, it sounds like the child will learn to be good when being watched for the sake of getting presents and then act however he/she wants to act when not under surveillance. It’s almost making surveillance mandatory for civilized behaviour.
  4. It kind of makes tattle-taling a desirable activity. Again I come back around to 1984 where reporting thought and action crime was highly rewarded – particularly in children. Do you really want your child NARCing on everyone because he thinks that’s magical and rewardable activity? Certainly reporting bad behaviour to adults is a good thing…. sometimes.
The Elf Looms.


Maybe I’m naive to think that our current state of privacy is as secure as I’d like to hope it is — what with our entire lives chronicled on Facebook, our credit card activities carefully monitored and marketed too, Amazon profiling, our work histories all on LinkedIn and look, here, even my thoughts are out here on the internet — with all of that it seems, perhaps, silly that an Elf sitting on the shelf and *fake* reporting to *fake* Santa isn’t so bad…   We’d like to think that our little Elf is utopian tool. A parenting ait that teaches and rewards a child’s good behaviour, that it’s only a harmless and charming tradition. But I think it’s much more sinister than that.The pivotal point is that, the Elf’s surveillance in the home becomes normalized as does comfort and even happy feelings with this surveillance, following this is learned and rewarded behaviour under this surveillance. I can’t help it, it’s just darn dystopian (that’s the utopian tool gone awry my friends).


What do you think? I’d really like to know if you agree or disagree and why. I think this is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, though I clearly think it’s a negative one – I wouldn’t mind seeing the other hand a little clearer.

 Before I leave you, I have to say that my opinion is only mine. The other Book Warriors and the wonderful people at Kaleidoscope all think for themselves (and quite vocally and wittily too!).