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Elf on the Shelf becomes stressful — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011Elf on the Shelf becomes stressful — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Some of my friends told me about using an Elf on the Shelf to help their children behave in the weeks before Christmas. Seemed like a good idea. My eldest is 9 and still believes in Santa, as do his two younger sisters.

I explained to the children the evening after Thanksgiving that this little plush elf (I bought online, shh!) had special magic: he would visit our house every day, then fly back to the North Pole at night to report to Santa Claus whether they had been naughty or nice. We weren’t allowed to touch him or the magic would be broken and Santa might not come at all. Before I go to bed each night, I have been moving him to a different spot in the house where he can be seen by the children.

But now I’m having second thoughts. For the last couple of days my son has been asking me if I think he is being nice. He’s going a little overboard — being stone silent at dinner (instead of his usual verbal jabs with the 6-year-old), and even letting the 2-year-old play with his remote control car — his most precious possession. I told him she might break it and he said, no, it was okay. Later he told me he very much wanted the elf to tell Santa he had been nice to his little sister. But he wished she wouldn’t ask for the remote control car anymore because he was very worried that she would break it.

I’m worried that this is too stressful an ordeal for him for the whole month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Good Enough Mom to Good Enough Kids

Don’t miss last week’s column Explaining death to a 2-year-old — Good Parenting


When a make-believe game becomes an unendurable experience, it’s time to change the game. Since you presented the children with the rules, apparently under Santa’s authority, you can likewise adjust the rules to a level of comfort for your family.

Your son, by now, has certainly earned his rank among the nicest children in the world, you can tell him. How about turning the game into catching the children in Acts of Kindness? These could include niceness toward a sibling, parent, or pet, a kindness toward a classmate or neighbor, a friendly letter or phone call to a faraway family member, or a donation to a charity. At this time of year outgrown clothes, books, and toys are in big demand. One act per day is all the elf is looking for. Just to keep the score accurate, you could post each child’s daily act on the refrigerator. (Maybe include the grown-ups in the house — if they’re hoping for a token of acknowledgement from Saint Nick themselves.) If toward the end of the day anyone is lacking an Act of Kindness, the other members of the family could offer some suggestions. It’s a cooperative game. Everyone wins.

Positive psychology and positive discipline work with our strengths and successes to build more of each. We tend to find what we are looking for: as you and the children notice the many thoughtful things each one of you does each day it will encourage more of the same in everyone. Think you can keep that up for a couple of weeks? It just might become habitual.

The idea of Santa Claus as a judgmental gift giver seems a little cruel, given that children are prone to childish behavior. Almost all “naughty” behavior is preventable, so long as the adults are keeping up with meeting their children’s needs, including guiding them in the right direction. Anticipate behavior challenges and head them off with prevention tactics for example, ask the 9-year-old ahead of time what news he’d like to share at tonight at dinner. Do your part to keep the conversation pleasant at the table, even if that requires asking the 6-year-old to step out to the kitchen to help you (if she starts slipping into old habits). Set out leftover boxes so you can pack tomorrow’s lunches or count the spoons for dessert.

Take a few moments each day to comment on each child’s kindness toward someone else. Help them savor that delicious feeling of knowing they have made someone else’s day brighter or load lighter. The best motivation for good behavior is that behaving well is its own reward.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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