The Elf on the Shelf has become a regular part of the Christmas season for millions and millions of families. First introduced in 2015, parents have been using their own personal elf to basically bribe their children into being good. After all, every elf reports back to Santa about who is being naughty or nice, as well as who deserves to open lots of presents on Christmas morning.
While the The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition game might seem like harmless fun — and a serious motivator to get your kids on their best behavior during the weeks before the holiday — some psychologists believe that playing into material driven behavior rewards isn’t necessarily a good thing.
"There's a very clear message with something like [Elf on the Shelf] and with the whole Santa Claus 'naughty or nice' concept, which is: If you're good, you'll get stuff," Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, explained to The Huffington Post.
However, Kasser points out that “stuff” doesn’t actually make kids happier. Studies have proven that material items don’t bring happiness, and that people who focus their lives around materialistic goals are not only less satisfied than others but also more insecure.
The Huffington Post also touches upon a 2014 study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-authors of Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, focused around how the framing of the holiday affects children’s behavior. Gathering 58 kids between the ages of 5 and 8, they divided them up into two groups. Two children from each group would meet with Santa together. Half the groups would be asked the standard, “What do you want for Christmas?” while the others would be asked “What presents are you excited to give someone for Christmas?” Then, they were given the opportunity to pick either a large or small piece of chocolate, fully aware that their partner would get the other. 67 percent of those who were asked what they wanted opted for the larger piece, while only 53 percent of those who were asked about giving rather than receiving chose the bigger piece.
"The words we use define what Christmas means to our children," Maxfield told the publication. "The Christmas cues, the way society and the way many parents talk about Christmas, sets up a scenario that would make even the most giving child be tempted to get, get, get."
Taking that into consideration, there are more responsible ways to use the Elf on the Shelf. For instance, you can have your children do things for other people and engage in altruistic behavior to please the elf, but not to get gifts. "If you frame it as an opportunity to give, it creates its own rewards and intrinsic satisfaction for the child," Grenny said. You can also use the elf to represent the spirit of Christmas, and to remind kids that Christmas is about giving, not receiving.