Is the Elf on the Shelf  Santa’s little helper or is he something far more sinister?

That Elf occupying millions of American homes during the month of December has come under scrutiny by researchers who claim the popular Christmas doll sends a scary message. Consider this dour mouthful from Drs. Laura Pinto of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Selena Nemorian of Monash University of Melbourne, Australia: “While the elf may be part of a pre-Christmas game and might help manage children’s behaviors in the weeks leading up the holiday, it also sets children up for dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures that involve panoptic surveillance.”

elfscreamSo the hands-off elf keeping score on your kid from his perch and reporting back to Santa could be seen as a tool of the police state, desensitizing your children to the dangers of being watched. So what’s really new? The elf is only a deputy for the big sheriff at The North Pole. And parents have been using the fear of the Jolly Old Elf to extract good behavior since the prospect of a “lump of coal” in the Christmas stocking kept little tykes in line. Kids have always been told Santa is watching. The difference is, now they know who is tattling.

Is he Santa’s spy? For a kid, it’s always been a long wait for Christmas. And now, with the holidays season kicking off right after Halloween, the wait can be interminable, while the toy advertising rolls on. Not that long ago eager kids and their parents got through December with an Advent calendar and the quaint thrill of opening a window to reveal a pretty picture. The picture turned to chocolate and tiny plastic toys. Now parents get to figure out where to cleverly place the Elf every night. Does the relationship between your child and the family Elf serve as a “mirror of the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state,” as researchers suggest? Or are we  overthinking what for many families is a harmless holiday ritual?

For those who find The Elf on the Shelf a little creepy or too heavy-handed there is an alternative. The Kindness Elves are moving in on the Elf’s territory. Instead of acting as snitches, The Kindness Elves teach “love, kindness and gratitude.” Each morning they have a positive message,  either praising a child for a good deed or suggesting something nice he or she or they might do for others. They’re encouraged to write back. Do elves live in your house or are you in an elf-free zone? Share your experiences in the comments.