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Is there an Elf on your Shelf?

The Elves have made their way from Scandinavia to the US and are now moving on to shelves all over the UK

Once you’ve acquired your family’s Elf, named it, and placed it somewhere in your home, the Elf keeps a look out, watching behaviour in the home, before heading to the North Pole each night to report to Father Christmas about who has been naughty or nice. The Elf returns each morning, and the process repeats until Christmas Eve.

At heart, it’s a charming idea. It is fun to see the kids leap out of bed each morning to search for their Elf, as long as their parents find it fun taking on the additional pressure and commitment of being Chief Elf Operating Officer, and finding new and amusing places for the Elf each morning!

While the Elf is designed to add a little extra magic, it gets rather more complicated when the Elf is there to impose an element of control at home.

Whether you’re an Elf Family, or a Mensch on the Bensch family for Hannukah, the premise is the same as many of us remember from our childhoods – Father Christmas is watching, and is an all-knowing judge of behaviour.

And that can be great, when your kids are being good. Although, we have to be honest here, the idea of behaving well in order to receive presents, is not ideal in the long-term. Yes, threats and bribes usually lead to desired behaviour in the moment. But we’re in this parenting role for the long-term! We want our kids to learn to do their best they can because it feels right, not because of an over-riding fear that their holiday will be ruined if they mess up. A successful Elf season might even lead to further problems in the New Year, when the Elf disappears, and you have to find another external magical surveillance mechanism to promote positive behaviour.

The problem is that most kids, at any point in each day, are about 10 seconds away from messing up, and doing something we wish they wouldn’t, and something that Father Christmas won’t be happy with.

But is that being naughty? Not really …. It’s far more likely that they’re over-tired and over-excited, or full of some other feeling, making them even more impulsive or, for some reason, they’re desperate for more attention. Without a mature brain, their ability to put on the brakes, and evaluate and then change their behaviour, is very limited. Their brain and body leap into action way before they can consider the consequences ….

Even with an Elf on The Shelf, kids make mistakes. It’s one of the realities of family life. They are learning and practicing, building new habits each day. And we want them to accept that mistakes are a normal and natural – even a necessary and expected – part of growing. They are opportunities to learn and grow, and not something that they need to hide or cover up.

We don’t want them worrying that they will lose something they’re so looking forward to because their Elf is reporting their mistakes back to Father Christmas. This raises their anxiety level which then makes mistakes more likely. And when they make a mistake, the fear that their Elf has spotted them – combined with the other feelings such as guilt or frustration or embarrassment associated with making mistakes – often leads to a full-on limbic reaction ….

This is not how we want to head towards Christmas Eve. On that night, we want our children falling asleep full of confidence and hope about the day ahead. The last thing we want is a sobbing child who believes they have messed up their chance of a Happy Christmas.

So, with our positive parenting elf hats on, how can you make sure The Elf – or whatever version ‘Father Christmas is watching’ you have at home – is a genuinely fun and threat-free way to bring greater harmony and more peace in your family?

Be clear that The Elf is more interested in positives.

The Elf is typically represented as on the lookout for who is naughty, but it is attention to who is nice and shows improved behaviour that reinforces positive habits and keeps the mood upbeat!

Tell your children that their Elf’s priority is to share all the things they get right or do better, and that The Elf particularly loves effort and a good attitude! This helps children feel safer, and more confident and competent, and that helps them behave better. The Elf becomes the medium for Descriptive Praise.

What happens when behaviour slides and mistakes are made?

Of course the Elf notices when things go wrong but the Elf is keen to see what happens next. Do they clean up the spilled water themselves, or do they blame a sibling? Do they give that sibling a hug after they inadvertently pushed them over or ‘borrowed’ their favourite toy, or do they pretend nothing happened? Do they give their grown-up voice a go, after they whined? Do they go back and hang up their coat when reminded, after they left it on the floor?

If a child messes up, and then says sorry or does something to make amends, and tries to put things right, the Elf puts that right at the top of their nightly report.

Can we intervene, and give them a heads-up about how they need to behave?

Of course we can, as long as we master the art of turning a ‘nag’ into a gentle reminder ….. Much of this is about our body language and tone of voice. It’s not easy to get this point across in a blog!

We can say “hey, coat!” in a number of ways. We can say it harshly and loudly, shaking our head and even rolling our eyes, fuelled by a bucket load of frustration, disappointment and even resentment. We can also say it lightly and gently, maybe with a raised eyebrow, coming from a calm place where we recognise that our child finds it hard to remember boring things like hanging up coats, and is so excited and relieved to get home and is eager to grab a snack and start playing.

Children do need reminding to do all the things they have to do each day. Prompts before the event to do things right are more effective than pointing out what’s gone wrong after the event. We can say things like “yesterday everyone remembered to hang their coats up, do you think we will all remember this afternoon?” or “what’s the first thing we need to do when we get home with these wet coats?”.

Another way to minimise reminding is to get ahead of the game and create an Elf List together - a simple and clear list of all the behaviours that the Elf is keen to spot. Don’t make the list yourself and present it to the kids! This is their list – ask them what they think should be on the list. You may be surprised or relieved to realise how many positive behaviours they know ….

These ‘reminder’ lists work best when there are lots of small easy wins. So include behaviours that your children are already doing on a regular basis. Why? Because this makes them feel successful. And feeling successful is a very motivating feeling! And, yes, you can also add in some stretch goals, so things that your kids can do, but often don’t quite manage to do. But avoid setting the bar so high that the kids just walk away.

So, whether you choose the omnipresent surveillance of an Elf or a Mensch or simply the good ol’ Saint Nicholas, make it a benevolent force for good.