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Is There a Downside to ‘The Elf on the Shelf’?

“When parents and teachers bring The Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?”

That’s the query posed by Drs. Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin in their article, “Who’s the Boss,” published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

As Pinto told the Washington Post, “I don’t think the elf is a conspiracy and I realize we’re talking about a toy. It sounds humorous, but we argue that if a kid is okay with this bureaucratic elf spying on them in their home, it normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future restrictions on our privacy might be more easily accepted.”

At this point, if you’re not already familiar with this elfin tradition, you may be asking, “What manner of toy has infiltrated our culture to the detriment of our children and their eventual acceptance of an Orwellian ‘big brother’ state?”

The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition is a book and a toy. Published in 2005 by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, the story describes how Santa’s “scout elves” help him keep a watchful eye on whether children have been naughty or nice. Each night, a family’s elf flies back to the North Pole to give a report and then returns home. Each morning, the family awakes to find the elf hiding in a new spot. The only rule is that children cannot touch the elf or its magic will disappear.

Judging by The Elf on the Shelf’s popularity (six million sold as of 2013), the masses do not share Pinto and Nemorin’s concern. In fact, many families have made it a cherished Christmas tradition. And, even parents who initially thought the idea of an ever-watchful elf was a little creepy have caved to their children’s demand for their own elf. As one mom put it, “I realized that my kids haven’t been tainted by the world yet and everything through their eyes is magical and fun. The elf is just a part of this magical season, and my kids deserved to be a part of it.”

Parents around the world have long used the threat of an all-seeing personality—whether it be Santa, one of his elves, or another figure—to help keep their children in check. Is this imaginary elf really cause for alarm? Or are Pinto and Nemorin overthinking a harmless tradition that helps add magic to the season? Give us your thoughts in the comments below.

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Anne Vogel

Anne Vogel is a senior writer for K12. With a degree in communications from Virginia Tech, and a master’s degree in linguistics and TESOL Certification from George Mason University, her passion for language and writing is clear. Her varied career includes six years teaching English as a Second Language at California State University–Long Beach, after which Anne returned to her native Virginia and taught at her alma mater, Fairfax High School. For the past ten years, she’s worked as a writer and editor for nonprofit and corporate organizations in the education and government contracting sectors. With friends across the globe—thanks to her teaching days—she loves to travel. But the destination she enjoys most is Marietta, Georgia, where her favorite nephew lives.

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