We have an elf who visits our house each year leading up to Christmas, popping up in a different hiding spot every morning. His name is Jon Snow. (We were in the thick of Game of Thrones the first year he arrived, but it just sounds like a wintry name to our kids!) We tell our kids he is here from the North Pole, reporting back to Santa about their behavior. No, we are not one of the families whose elf causes all kinds of meme-worthy mischief and shenanigans, but my kids have so much fun looking for him first thing in the morning. For us, it adds to our Christmas cheer.
But the Elf on the Shelf tradition is pretty polarizing. I have seen many social media posts encouraging households who don’t have elves to stand firm and stick together. There are plenty of authors who have outright announced their hatred for the Elf on the Shelf in their articles!
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Why do people hate the Elf on the Shelf?
For starters, they don’t like the extra pressure of Elf on the Shelf at an already busy and stressful time of year. It’s burdensome to take the time to come up with different Elf on the Shelf ideas for each day leading up to Christmas. On top of everything else parents need to remember during the holidays, they have to remember to move the elf or risk waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat realizing they forgot. And I imagine if they’re working really hard on it, there’s a sense of competition, too — either wanting to impress others or their own kids.
In my house, while it is fun for the kids, the Elf on the Shelf adds a little extra pressure to keep my kids believing in the magic of Christmas. I have to answer questions from my critical kids about the elf, and the doll is a very tangible thing available for them to scrutinize. “He has Velcro on his gloves!” my six-year-old son noticed this year. Yes, the better to hang around in the same place all day…
They criticize the lesson the Elf on the Shelf in this form teaches their kids. It uses negative reinforcement — you’d better be good, or you won’t get any presents. It also causes them to focus on the “getting” aspect of the season. As Cecilia from Happily Family writes, “We can only be generous when we know that we have enough… It’s hard to share when you’re scared.”
A different approach to Elf on the Shelf
Recently, in a Facebook group I host, a couple of moms shared that they do Elf on the Shelf differently. Their approach turns the arguments against the Elf on the Shelf on their head.
These moms leave a different note from their Elf on the Shelf for their kids to find each day. These notes:
- encourage an act of kindness,
- announce a fun family Christmas activity, or
- introduce a holiday service project
It’s low-pressure because the elf does not need to cause mischief. In fact, for this Elf on the Shelf idea, you could probably leave the elf in the same place all season – like on the tree or the mantel.
And it completely changes the message of the tradition for the kids. It focuses on the joy of the season and encourages the kids to give to others.
How to implement this easy Elf on the Shelf idea
There is a more formalized Kindness Elves program that you can read more about by visiting The Imagination Tree. The website also has lots of supplies, including “kindness elves” themselves, that you can order.
However, you could use any sort of elf doll (maybe even a “reformed” version of your current Elf on the Shelf) to leave these notes for your child.
One mom’s elf pops up with a note each day.
First, the elf leaves a note like this:
I am so excited to be back visiting you! As you know, Santa has sent me to be your guide in doing fun things this Christmas season, but also to help remind you of the importance of being kind to each other, your friends, family, and people around you. I look forward to seeing you live the Christmas spirit.
Then, she leaves one of the following notes per night. The mom decides how the day went and what is planned for the next day before choosing what note to write. She often has many left over to use for future years.
- Be considerate and hold the door open for someone else at school or at the store today. People always appreciate little acts of kindness.
- Give a gift to the bus driver. I wonder what she’d like to receive.
- Write some thank-you notes to the custodian and office staff at your school so you can deliver them before winter break starts.
- I bet your principal would love to hear how great your teacher is. Can you find a way to tell her that today?
- Invite someone who looks lonely to play with you at recess.
- Help carry the load for a family member. Do one chore for one of your siblings without them knowing.
- Leave a kind note or a picture you drew inside a library book so the next person will be surprised and smile!
- Turn off your digital devices today and really listen to someone.
- Visit an elderly neighbor today. Bring them a picture you made, deliver a Christmas card, or bring them a small gift to bring them cheer.
- Choose the gift of forgiveness today – to give or receive. That’s a hard one to do. This one may take the rest of the month to do!
- By the end of the day, I challenge you to share 3 kind things that someone else did for you today.
- Try your hardest to see how many people you can make smile today.
- Be kind to our planet! If we aren’t careful, the North Pole may disappear. Do two things today that will save energy and be good for Earth.
- Take a stroll in your beautiful town to look at the lights and enjoy the company of your family.
- I bet you wait in lines a lot at school! Give one person your spot in line (for the water fountain, to go outside for recess, to buy lunch, to line up at the door, or something like that).
- I heard you have had some experience with helping those in need with warm socks and shoes and hats. I bet there are a few more people to help this season! Bring your mom one thing you own that you could donate (like a coat or shoes) and drop those off where they can get good use.
- It’s cookie baking day! Make sure to send some to neighbors.
- Have generous hearts and find food to donate to hungry kids in your area.
- I think today may be a good day to wrap the presents you bought for loved ones. Santa loves seeing how much joy it brings both the giver and receiver.
- Today seems like a good day to snuggle up and watch a Christmas movie, all of you together!
- I know you love your teachers. Today is a great day to write them a little note of thanks.
- It’s important to make sure your friends know how much you appreciate them. Let them know why you like being friends with them. Pick one special friend each.
- Always remember the reason for the season. Enjoy the church service tonight.
- I love seeing Christmas lights! Go somewhere special to that will brighten up your spirits.
- Snow people are the nicest people! You can never meet too many! Try to count how many you see.
- Decorate the gingerbread houses with as many candies as you like! Yum! But remember to share with each other.
- I had to go back to the North Pole to take care of some business. Did you miss me? Were you kind while I was gone?
- Make sure to tell someone “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” while you’re out doing errands. It can bring a smile to someone’s day.
- You had a great day yesterday. Thank you for being so kind to others around you!
- Do you know someone who needs a hug or a kind word today?
- Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way! What fun Christmas adventure do you want to go on today?
- Did someone say “choo choo?” I love a good train, do you? Let’s go visit one!
- I heard you plan to visit the Sugar Plum Fairy. Give her my kind regards. You’ll love the Nutcracker!
- Have you ever heard of Scrooge! Don’t be like him! But in the end, he learns to open his heart and love. Enjoy the show tonight!
- What was the kindest thing you’ve experienced from someone else this week? What is the kindest thing you’ve done this week? Share with family at dinner tonight.
- I heard you had a rough afternoon yesterday. Does anyone need a hug to make it better? Tomorrow we each try again.
- You deserve a trip to the ZOO today! I love animals!
- Send a hug made from paper to someone you love. It could look however you’d like a hug to look like!
- Feed the birds! I think they may be getting hungry in this cold weather!
- Do a secret act of kindness for someone
- Give treats to the mail carrier. Is there a box of chocolates or a candy cane that you could hide in the mailbox?
- Leave a happy note for someone to find somewhere in school or at home.
- Make cookies for a few of your neighbors and deliver them! I bet they would love to get a quick visit!
- Decide on an act of kindness that you can all do together.
- Tomorrow is Christmas day! I will miss you when I am back at the North Pole. It has been so fun watching you spread Christmas cheer!
Another mom has a Christmas countdown. The elf moves around the house, and a new note appears on the Christmas countdown each morning.
- Watch the Grinch with Grinch popcorn
- Make Christmas cards for a retirement community in town
- Write your great-grandmother a Christmas letter
- Watch Rudolph and Frosty
- Deliver the Christmas cards to Brookdale
- Turn in food donation at school
- Bake Christmas cookies!
- Pay a portion of someone’s Walmart Christmas Layaway
- Take Christmas cookies to school
- Deliver Christmas toys to Care Train
- Deliver dog treats and blankets to Humane Society
- See the Zoo Lights!
- Create a Christmas show
- Clean out toys and donate them
- Pick out Christmas books from the library to read
- Write your teacher a THANK YOU note
- Pay it forward at the local coffee shop
- Leave pennies with the horse ride outside the grocery store
- Drop off candy canes with positive notes for people at the library
- Have fun at your school Christmas party!
- Bake Santa’s cookies!
- You get to see your cousins today!
- Watch Christmas movies with grandma
- Enjoy Christmas Eve with your family!
If you’d like to try the calendar approach, you could also try a pocket countdown, such as this one from Amazon, and hide the note inside:
However you implement the activity, you will be encouraging your kids to start focusing on the joy and giving of Christmas, instead of the necessity of behaving well in order to earn presents for themselves. Do you have alternatives to the usual Elf on the Shelf at your house?