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As we approach the beginning of December, my social media feeds are flooded with the Elf on the Shelf. From clever ideas on how to hide him and position him, to complaints on having to dig him out of the Christmas bin, it’s pretty amazing how pervasive this scary little doll has become in the American household during the holiday season.

Side note: You do realize you’re the parents, right? Like, you’re adults, and in charge of your household, and you don’t have to do what you don’t want to do! It’s a cool thing that happens.

Anyway, while it seems as though many people participate in the charade as more of a family tradition, and these days, a social media competition to see whose creative ideas can get them the most views, likes, and shares, the origin of the Elf on the Shelf was basically to make your kids behave.

Now, this type of reward and consequence system (hello, behaviorism) is not necessarily new to parenting, and in some cases, has worked quite effectively (though I prefer a more eclectic, humanist approach myself).

Kids are watching us. Even the little ones. Especially the little ones. They’re looking to us to show them how to exist in the world.

But the idea that kids need a doll that watches them all day long to keep them in line, well, doesn’t give a whole lot of credit to kids. And it takes away a whole bunch of teaching opportunities and replaces them with a bizarre scare tactic with the message that basically says “Be good when someone is watching you and when rewards are at stake.”

Besides, isn’t this what Santa Claus is for? We already have one creepy dude! Do we need another?

And look, I get it. I have four kids! And when you’re a tired parent, and you’re exhausted from nagging and reminding and cajoling that we parents often have to do to get our kids to do something. Anything. You will do whatever it takes. Elf swinging on a hanging lamp like Miley Cyrus in Wrecking Ball? CHECK.

But take away the desperation for a second. Is that really the message we want our kids to get? Don’t we want them to be good when no one is watching, when no rewards are being offered?

For all the time (and money and energy) parents spend on Elf on the Shelf, we could be modeling what it means to be a good citizen.

When’s the last time you volunteered? Or helped out a community member in need? The list of things we could all be doing to model being kind, empathic people rather than making tiny little elf underpants and booze bottles to stage in an Instagram post goes on.

Kids are watching us, even the little ones (especially the little ones!), but the big ones too. They’re looking to us to show them how to exist in this world.

There can still be magic in the holidays, whatever you choose to celebrate. But it definitely doesn’t need to involve an overpriced Elf on the Shelf.

Kristen Chase is a writer, author, and senior editor at OnlySky. Her debut novel and children's book will be released in 2023.