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Elf on the Shelf: Disguised Social Control

The countdown to Christmas has begun…

Talks of Santa, the Nice & Naughty lists, and presents are surely filling the homes of people across the globe. There has always been something magical about this time of year for children but in recent years, new Christmas traditions have managed to make the magic a reality. To the aid of parents everywhere, the ingenious idea of Elf on the Shelf has brought a previous figment of imagination to life and become a surprisingly effective method of behavioral control.

Everyone knows that you can only make it on the Nice List if you are on your best behavior, but many kids question whether Santa and his elves are really watching them. That is where the Elf on the Shelf comes in…

The idea is that each elf is a scout sent from the North Pole by Santa himself. They have one goal and one goal only: to watch over and encourage the children in their ‘assigned’ home to be on their best behavior. At the end of each day within the holiday season, all the elves on the shelves return to the North Pole while their children are sleeping and give Santa a behavior report. If the report is good, they get points for the Nice list but if it isn't, they get put on the Naughty list. The next morning, the elves return and assume a new position somewhere in the house.

Now, there are only two rules when it comes to the elf. The first is that children cannot, under any circumstance, touch the elf. If they do, it loses its magic powers. The official Elf on the Shelf website advises that, if touched by mistake, the child should write a letter to santa and apologize. The second rule is that the elf cannot move or speak while the children are awake, only while they are sound asleep.

In my extended family many of the parents use this little helper to turn their typically mischievous children into Nice list angels during this time of year. From what I have heard, I would say it is a pretty amazing version of disguised social control.

Even though I am too old to have experienced this tradition as a child, I was absolutely a believer in Santa and tricked into behaving through other means during the Christmas season. I find Elf on the Shelf such an interesting example of the many things that exist around this time of year to exert social control. Deviant or bad behavior that poses a risk of being “reported to Santa” is significantly reduced because children know what happens if they are not on the Nice List. This disguised social control is a harmless and helpful tool for parents during the holidays.

All in all, the ability of the Elf on the Shelf creators to successfully capture the magic of Christmas for kids and, on the same token, help parents manage their children's deviant behavior is pretty brilliant. For the sake of parents everywhere, I hope the magic lasts a long time…

-- Demetria Smith

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