Christmas magic or sinister surveillance? Parents weigh in on Elf on the Shelf

Elf on the Shelf is marketed as a
Elf on the Shelf is marketed as a

Depending on who you ask, inviting the Elf on the Shelf into your home this holiday season is either the worst parenting mistake you'll ever make, or the key to Christmas magic.

It's been a popular debate among parents and psychologists ever since the little guy — who, according to the story, watches children from the first day of December through to Christmas and reports back to Santa — made its debut in people's homes in the early 2000s.

"It's one of the worst parenting decisions I've made," said London, Ont., father of two, Ryan Starkweather, who spoke to CBC News while standing outside in the cold to avoid his nine-year-old daughter from overhearing the conversation. "I have a laundry list of parenting decisions that have gone wrong but this is at the top."

"It's one of the worst parenting decisions I've made," - London, Ont., dad, Ryan Starkweather

That years-old decision is now holding he and his wife hostage, Starkweather joked.

The Elf on the Shelf phenomenon was first popularized in the early 2000s when Chanda Bell and Carol V. Aebersold co-authored a self-published book of the same name.

Parents are encouraged to pose the Elf in the middle of increasingly outlandish scenarios to surprise their children each morning.

Submitted by Ryan Starkweather
Submitted by Ryan Starkweather

"It's like having a house guest in your house for a whole 25 days where you're on pins and needles because this is completely out of my normal," he said.

Single mom Kate Campbell, of London, Ont., was on board with the Elf of the Shelf trend even before she had children, having purchased the doll when she was still pregnant with her daughter, now nine.

"It's something that I can do to bring her joy every morning," said Campbell who also has a second elf she calls Bernadette — the girlfriend. To ensure her daughter doesn't catch her, Campbell sets her alarm at 3:15 a.m. to pose the two dolls before her daughter gets up.

Submitted by Kate Campbell
Submitted by Kate Campbell

Is it a worthwhile tradition?

"Parents use all sorts of tools to encourage good behaviour," said Calgary psychologist, Dr. Brent Macdonald. "The Elf on a Shelf seems to focus on catching kids being bad, which is not optimal.

"If you enjoy it and it's not used in a judgmental way, have fun. If judgment and surveillance and stress are a part of the 'tradition,' perhaps reconsider the value of the tradition," he said.

"Essentially he's your in-house scout elf who watches the child," Campbell explained. "The funny thing is in my house it can be July, we can be in Winners, and I can say, 'He's always watching,' and she knows exactly what I'm talking about."

Campbell is going all out this year because it may be the last year her daughter, who is already questioning the validity of Santa Claus, is a believer, she said.

Listen to Ryan Starkweather and Kate Campbell duke it out live on London Morning:

"There's lying and then there's storytelling," said Macdonald. "Santa is storytelling, a myth just like any other myth, with roots in folk custom that serves to bring families together through a sense of shared tradition.

Elf on the Shelf is specifically designed to catch bad behaviour," said McDonald. "I think the Elf on the Shelf can be retired gracefully in the pile of poorly advised holiday activities."