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The Elf on the Shelf has been around for a few years now, I know. It’s new to our household this Christmas, however, because our son has reached the age when we felt that hiring a member of Santa’s secret police would be most effective in curbing his holiday behavior. Last year, he was just getting used to the idea of this fat guy in a red suit flying around in a sleigh and spreading good cheer all over the world. This year, he really gets it. Our son is almost four years old and he completely buys into the Santa Claus concept.
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“It’s almost Halloween,” I told him one warm October afternoon when we were sitting on the front stoop, eating popsicles.

“That’s nice,” my son said. “But it’s not Christmas.”

On Friday night, we unveiled the Elf on the Shelf package ($30 for a cheaply made elf doll and a hardcover storybook. Can you imagine the profit margin on this product?). We introduced our son to the elf, I read the storybook, then we sat down to watch the Elf on the Shelf Christmas Special on TV. Then, it was time to “name” our elf and file the necessary paperwork, which included registering online for an official adoption certificate. After some thought, our son decided on the name “Nick.” My wife promptly placed Nick on top of the upright piano, and explained that we cannot under any circumstances touch the elf, because then he will lose his magic.

Our son likes the idea of having Nick around the house, and so far he delights in getting up each morning to find where Nick has landed (he flies back to the North Pole every night to report to Santa on how our child is behaving). I can’t say that Nick’s presence has improved our three-year-old’s behavior, but he does understand that the elf is there to do a job.

“He talks to Santa,” he said solemnly when I reminded him that Nick wouldn’t be very pleased to see how much leftover turkey our son had left on his plate during Sunday dinner.

elfadoptioncertificate-2013-300dpiAs a parent, I have mixed feelings about The Elf on the Shelf. On the surface, it seems like a fun Christmas tradition (one that could easily be staged without paying $30 for the boxed set). But in reading the storybook, which lays out the elf’s duties in somewhat clumsy rhyme and meter, I grew a little concerned. Take this passage, for instance:

I tell him if you have been good or been bad.
The news of the day makes him happy or sad.
A push or a shove I’ll report to “the Boss,”
but small acts of kindness will not be a loss.
In the car, in the park, or even at school,
the word will get out if you broke a rule.

Wow. So Nick is part of a vast network of elf spies who report to Santa each night leading up to Christmas on everything your child has been doing, good or bad. Then Santa alone will pass judgment on whether or not the child should be rewarded or punished in the form of giving/withholding Christmas presents. Correct me if this doesn’t sound a little bit like North Korea?

On the other hand, maybe The Elf on the Shelf is distinctly American? After all, our children are going to grow up in a world where anything they do in public or on their digital devices can be filmed, monitored and analyzed, where GPS in their phones will track everywhere they go. Maybe the elf is just a primer for the big, Orwellian world to come?

Perhaps it is good that our children become acquainted at an early age with the reality that somebody out there is watching them and taking notes. At least Nick the Elf is up-front and friendly about it:

The gleam in my eye and my bright little smile
shows you I’m listening and noting your file.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And be good!

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