The Elf on the Shelf phenomenon has become part and parcel of the Christmas season.
It works like this: A toy elf is positioned in various places throughout the home (or maybe just on a shelf) and the child is told that he or she is being watched by the creature, who will report to Santa Claus if the child has been naughty or nice. The child cannot interact with the elf – absolutely no touching -- or the elf’s “magic” will disappear.
But a new academic paper challenges the notion that the Elf on the Shelf is, in fact, child’s play. The nature of Elf on the Shelf, which is based on a popular book, conditions a child to accept a surveillance state, says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper titled “Who’s the Boss,” authored by Education professor Laura Pinto of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Selena Nemorin, a research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
To say the least, critics, including many parents, are not too happy about a critique of the elf and what it stands for. But many Internet commenters are agreeing, with some drawing comparisons to a line from a popular Christmas songabout Santa: "He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake."
The social media chatter has not escaped Pinto, one of the paper's authors, who says, “What we’re hearing is that some parents are saying, ‘That doll creeps me out, and I don’t like it spying on us.’”
When asked by HLN if this means the end of the Elf on the Shelf and its holiday fantasy narrative, Pinto chuckled.
“We are not suggesting that no one can play with the elf, we’re saying that we have some big concerns about the rules of the elf,” Pinto told HLN. “The positive thing is that the elf is sparking some good conversation among parents."
One of Pinto’s main concerns about the Elf on the Shelf is that its “rule of play,” flies in the face of traditional child/toy engagement.
“The rule of play is that kids get to interact with a doll or video game or what have you, but not so with the Elf on the Shelf: The rule is that you don’t touch the elf. Think about the message that sends,” she said.
Not only are you not allowed to touch this pint-sized sentinel, but its watchful eyes presumably stalk your actions with hopes of reporting your deeds back to his superior: The ruby-cheeked Santa Claus!
She says it’s up to parents to reconcile the doll’s rules of play with what children normally like to do with toys: touch, play, feel.
“It’s all about the complexity of play and it makes you one way. You don’t play the game of Life [the boardgame] and just look at it. Normally when you play you get to create a story world -- think Barbie -- it’s through play that kids work out their view of the world. The rules of the Elf, where the kid is watching the elf, no learning can take place. It doesn’t give you a chance to interact with it.”
Pinto says she hopes parents continue to talk about the Elf on the Shelf in the context of the notion of the toy as an ever-watching, vigilante guard that tattle-tells on children who don't display a certain type of behavior.
“If you don’t have a conversation about it, it normalizes the surveillance,” she says. “But to say that the Elf on the Shelf is responsible for the surveillance state? That's crazy.”