The Elf on the Shelf has taken some flak in recent years for packaging omnipresent surveillance as cute holiday fun for kids. Yet maybe the problem with Christmas is not the little guy on the shelf, but the big guy in the sleigh. After all, he’s the one who’s keeping the list. So perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at what Santa is teaching our kids.
On the upside, Santa encourages good behavior and giving to those in need (even if I have questions about whether he’s paying those elves). That giving spirit, however, is one-sided. Only the grown-ups who get to play Santa are experiencing the joy of giving.
For kids, Santa is all about getting. And certainly, research shows that kids appreciate the gifts they get (as long as those gifts are the gifts they want). But the getting part is where the problems begin. Because when kids compare notes after Christmas, they’ll probably notice that some kids got all the best gifts, while others barely scored anything at all.
How are kids supposed to make sense of this unfairness? Thankfully, the Christmas songs have it all worked out. Kids learn that Santa is up at the North Pole making a list, checking it twice, figuring out “who’s naughty or nice.” And they learn that if they end up on the wrong side of Santa’s list, they won’t be getting what they want. Meanwhile, the parents who are actually doing the giving seem extremely unlikely to withhold presents for disciplinary reasons. In one study, “those to whom the possibility was suggested seemed to be shocked, perhaps because such an action would be incongruent with the unqualified love of parents for children.” It seems safe to say that kids’ presents are more contingent on their families’ resources than their own behavior—but the Santa myth says the opposite.