Elf on the Shelf

Not having any kids of my own, I had not heard of the whole Elf on the Shelf tradition until this Christmas break when I spent a lot of time with my nephews and nieces. Every morning my niece Averie would wake up and do a search for her elf, whose name I've forgotten already. I had no idea this had been all the rage with young kids since 2005.

Some researchers have studied the cultural phenomenon and concluded it may be a troubling way of acclimating children to life in a surveillance state.

Through play, children become aware about others’ perspectives: in other words, they cultivate understandings about social relationships. The Elf on the Shelf essentially teaches the child to accept an external form of non-familial surveillance in the home when the elf becomes the source of power and judgment, based on a set of rules attributable to Santa Claus. Children potentially cater to The Elf on the Shelf as the “other,” rather than engaging in and honing understandings of social relationships with peers, parents, teachers and “real life” others.

What is troubling is what The Elf on the Shelf represents and normalizes: anecdotal evidence reveals that children perform an identity that is not only for caretakers, but for an external authority (The Elf on the Shelf), similar to the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state. Further to this, The Elf on the Shelf website offers teacher resources, integrating into both home and school not only the brand but also tacit acceptance of being monitored and always being on one’s best behaviour--without question.

By inviting The Elf on the Shelf simultaneously into their play-world and real lives, children are taught to accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures. Broadly speaking, The Elf on the Shelf serves functions that are aligned to the official functions of the panopticon. In doing so, it contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects.

Parents who have enthusiastically embraced Elf on the Shelf are likely rolling their eyes right now. I'm no parent, and I stay far away from teaching folks how to raise their kids, but linking Elf on the Shelf to the Benthamite Panopticon was too much to resist.

I am intellectually curious about the impact of childhood culture and mythology on children's personalities, however. For example, should we teach our kids to believe in Santa Claus?

Will Wilkinson plans to.

Well, we’re atheists. I don’t intend to proselytize atheism to my kid, because I’m not interested in getting him to believe anything in particular. What I’m interested in is teaching him how to reason in a way that maximizes his chances of hitting on the truth. Now, one of the most interesting truths about the empirical world is that there are all these powerful systems of myth that are kept afloat by a sort of mass conspiracy, and humans seem disposed to pick one from the ambient culture and take it very seriously. But it can be hard to get your head around the way it all works unless you participate in it. Santa is a perfect and relatively harmless way to introduce your child the socio-psychology of a collective delusion about the supernatural. The disillusionment that comes from the exposure to the truth about Santa breeds a general skepticism about similarly ill-founded popular beliefs in physics-defying creatures.

Tyler Cowen has contemplated this issue as well:

I say why not leave them guessing, hovering in a state of Bayesian Santa doubt?  My parents never told me Santa “was real,” but they didn’t tell me he “wasn’t real” either, so I slid rather gracefully into my Santa non-belief.  I don’t recall ever feeling disillusioned by a sense of loss and in fact those presents kept on coming.  I even had a clearer sense of the appropriate channel for making gift requests, what’s not to like about that?

This all seems rather harmless, and I do think in many cases, as with fairy tales, fiction offers a smoother psychic transition to some of the harsher truths of the world. For example, if you're getting a bitter divorce and have young kids, I doubt the best way to break the news to them is to explain that the institution of marriage is an unnatural and brittle one, or that their mother or father had an affair with someone they picked up at the corner pub. It takes time to build up that armor.

However, I am suspicious of the behavioral enforcement effectiveness of the Santa Claus and the Elf on the Shelf mythologies. The whole idea of a naughty or nice list, or the Elf on the Shelf observing you and reporting back to the North Pole, I've yet to see any evidence it encourages kids to behave any better. Perhaps that's not the point, and I don't know any parents who've ever withheld gifts from their kids. If so, why keep that whole naughty list panopticon surveillance state portion of the mythology at all? Why not have the story be about unconditional love?

Personally, I think it would be just as miraculous to teach kids about Jeff Bezos instead of Santa Claus, and about how Amazon delivers a gazillion packages worldwide through a vast coordinated interconnected system of computers, people, and vehicles. Sometimes the truth is magical.

(h/t Clive Thompson)