From Santa Claus To The Elf On The Shelf: Does “Big Brother” Need To Be Watching Us?

From Santa Claus To The Elf On The Shelf: Does “Big Brother” Need To Be Watching Us?

I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas. As many of my friends and classmates prepared for the holidays with a Christmas tree and stories of Santa Claus, I lit the candles on the menorah. Sometimes Hanukkah overlapped with Christmas. Sometimes it didn’t. I remember asking my parents for a Hanukkah bush (something we never got) because I wanted to feel like the other children and the excitement that came from having a tree. And while my mom told my sister and I when we were very young the true story of Santa Claus, we had to promise never to ruin the magic for other children. We never did. It wasn’t until I was in Grade 8 that my mom got remarried, and we also started to celebrate Christmas …

  • with the big family dinners,
  • with the decorated tree (I still remember when our dog ate as much popcorn as we strung),
  • and with the presents from Santa, even though we all knew a little bit more at this point.

While Santa slowly became a part of my life, he did so at a time when threats of coal and Santa’s watching, were no longer concerns.

I remember my first year of teaching, when December may have been my favourite month of the year. Why? Students had to behave for fear that if they didn’t, there would be no presents under the tree. I used Santa Claus constantly. There was always the worry that he was watching, and that he might not be happy. Nineteen years later, as December comes along again, I start to question what I did so many years ago. Now there’s not just Santa, but the Elf on the Shelf. It’s like we’re having children live the Nineteen Eighty-Four reality, but with a jolly Big Brother watching us and bringing along toys for good behaviour.

  • Touch the elf? The magic might be gone.
  • Misbehave? Presents might not be coming your way.
  • Choose to not comply? There will be consequences.

This holiday season can be stressful enough. With school ending for a couple of weeks, and routines that children know and rely on being constantly changed, there is a lot to dysregulate our youngest learners. Imagine then that this is coupled with the fear of upsetting/disappointing Santa or the Elf. (There’s even a Jewish equivalent with the Mensch on a Bench, which might reduce the stress of not being included with the Elf option, but leads to its own concerns about disappointing the Mensch.)

I am not trying to be the holiday Grinch and take away all that is fun about this time of the year. While some might argue that my heart hasn’t grown two sizes yet 🙂 , I’d like to think that it has, and that’s why these traditions concern me so much. Is keeping Santa and the Elf (or Mensch) happy, an exercise in self-control? What impact might this have on our kids, and is there another way to appreciate the magic of the holiday season without the additional stress? When I overhear a child asking, “Can Santa stop watching me?,” I wonder if this might be his expression of dysregulation. In the spirit of the holidays, should we start listening to children like him and making a change?


Aviva Dunsiger has been the Portal Plus Moderator for over a year now and completed the Foundations 1 Certification Program. She has taught everything from Kindergarten to Grade 6 and enjoys blogging about her teaching and learning experiences. She blogs professionally on her blog, Living Avivaloca. Aviva is excited to contribute a monthly post on The MEHRIT Centre Blog.

By | 2019-12-11T21:18:09+00:00 December 12th, 2019|


  1. Connie December 15, 2019 at 9:44 pm - Reply

    Hi Aviva,

    I was wondering, could this be maladaptive self regulation? When I think of how holidays are typically like for me, the words I hear are “manipulative” and “attention seeking” which I am learning to reframe as “attempting to meet own needs” and “connection seeking.”

    Commercialism – attempting to meet own needs

    Holidays- connection seeking

    Both, which can be approached in an adaptive or maladaptive way.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Connie December 15, 2019 at 9:47 pm - Reply

      I meant to say “Thoughts?” not “Just some thoughts.”


    • Aviva Dunsiger December 17, 2019 at 9:24 pm - Reply

      Connie, you have me thinking here. So are you saying that the Elf on the Shelf would be maladaptive self-regulation? Can you explain more? Thanks!


  2. Connie December 19, 2019 at 9:58 pm - Reply

    Hi Aviva,

    I’m wondering, why the Elf? Is it because something about the holidays is stressful in the five domains? If so, I’m wondering why families are turning to the Elf to relieve stress.



    • Aviva Dunsiger December 21, 2019 at 11:10 am - Reply

      An interesting question, Connie. Does the Elf relieve stress though or create it? Or does it create stress, but you’re thinking in an attempt to relieve it? You have me wondering.


  3. Shirley Trimmer December 23, 2019 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    I actually never knew the elf was watching. I thought he was a mischievous elf to be searched in the morning in a different predicament. How is the elf presented in other homes?
    Santa is watching was a device used when the excitement reached a level that needed a quick fix. It never created angst.

    • Aviva Dunsiger December 24, 2019 at 10:42 am - Reply

      Thanks for your comment! I’m not sure if the elf is watching per se, but I know that there’s a lot of stress associated with touching it. Then the elf can apparently lose its magic. One child told me that the “elf reports to Santa,” which makes me think that there’s a “watching” component. Curious to hear what others do.

      Glad to hear that the “Santa is watching” experiences that you had, never created angst. The comment that I overheard from a little boy makes me wonder if it does in some cases. Are they few and far between? Possibly. Maybe the key is to take the lead from the child. Investigate if he/she shows signs of stress.

      Thanks for sharing and adding to this discussion!

  4. Norah February 7, 2020 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    Elf on the shelf seems so blatantly manipulative and rooted completely in a punishment/reward model of working with children. My first thought is that it’s amazing what becomes “normal” these days. That being said, I know the carrot/stick method of parenting has a very long tradition and even around Christmas… the warning about finding a lump of coal in your stocking has been around for a while. In some Eastern European countries on Saint Nicholas’ day, the children of the community are held to account by angels and devils! While some of this may be done in a playful spirit, I do think this modern parenting hack of “Elf on the Shelf” is used by parents as a short-cut to good behaviour. I’m sure it creates the same kind of stress as other parental threats and bribes. For me personally, the idea really deflates me. There are so many ways to experience “magic” – I don’t think this needs to be one of them.

    • Aviva Dunsiger February 7, 2020 at 5:06 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Norah! You make me wonder why this is the case. Is it the stress caused by the dysregulating behaviour many children have before the holidays, which causes parents to maybe employ this kind of method to help reduce behaviour? I’m not saying it’s effective, but I wonder. As much information as there is out there on a punishment/reward system (even in the classroom), many still use it. Again, you make me question why? Is educator or parent stress a part of this? Hmmm …


  5. Norah February 8, 2020 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Interesting question, Aviva. I think Elf on the Shelf is appealing to many because it fits into a philosophy that’s already well accepted. I don’t think it’s a departure for many parents from what they may be doing in other ways at other times of the year. At school, my son got pencils and even candy for being quiet and lining up efficiently. Some of his classrooms had point systems for behaviour that led to rewards. I know parents who have promised hot chocolate for not crying at a drop-off and others who have threatened no play-dates with a good friend if certain behaviours at school didn’t stop. Elf on the Shelf fits right into a model of shaping children’s behaviour by rewarding them for desired behaviours (and of course, the inevitable other side of that, not being rewarded – punished – for not “behaving”). The Christmas season may add additional stresses, but I think Elf on the Shelf is simply a well-marketed and appealing idea that fits into a model already being used by many adults as they try to guide the children in their lives and handle the stresses of working with these young people. Of course, these are just my personal observations!

    • Aviva Dunsiger February 8, 2020 at 5:35 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your reply, Norah! I definitely see how a punishment/reward philosophy is still used by many, be it at home or at school. I guess that the Elf on the Shelf goes along with that. Many kids love the Elf too. I know that I heard from students before December 1st about their Elves arriving soon. I’m not trying to take away fun here, and for some kids, maybe there isn’t additional stress caused by the need to behave. Maybe they would do these things anyway. But for some, I think about the dysregulation that can come from trying to fulfill the Elf’s requests or not “touch the Elf.” I’m tempted to want to find another way to support the magic of the holidays. I never grew up with the Elf on the Shelf or Santa Claus though, so I always wonder, would I see things differently if I did?


  6. Norah February 11, 2020 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    I didn’t grow up with Elf on the Shelf either, so that certainly does make it easier for me to dismiss it! Thanks for sharing this article and thoughts on this topic.

    • Aviva Dunsiger February 12, 2020 at 8:08 am - Reply

      Thanks Norah! I wonder if our lack of experience with it also has us seeing Elf on the Shelf differently.


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