Kids / Parenting

Think Twice before You Put That Elf on That Shelf

Risking the Bah Humbug label, I warn you, parents of small children: think twice before you put that elf up on that shelf.

Unfamiliar with the tradition? Here’s how it goes. You read your kid a story about elves who spy on children all day and then fly, under cover of night, to Santa to deliver detailed behavior reports. Or something like that.  Then you place your own elf doll somewhere in your house, moving it to a new location each night while your children sleep.

Use With Caution

Be Warned

Sure, this might sound cute and creative and fun, thinking up quirky locations for your children’s Surveillance Elf each night, but two things:

1) What are the ramifications of using a Surveillance Elf for behavior modification? I mean, what’s the message? “Be good. You’re being watched. In your home. By a weird dude with pointy ears. Who reports back to a mythical white guy Big Boss.” That’s creepy. Not to mention, while it may motivate your children to be good for the first 25 days of December, what’ve you got on day 26? Mayhem!

2) Also, if you engage the Surveillance Elf this year, your kids will expect it next year. And next. And next. And next. Maybe the squeals of delight you hear in the morning as your children run around the house seeking their Surveillance Elf will keep you motivated for a while. But eventually your wee kiddos will grow into sullen nine-year-olds who are like, “Really, Mom? An elf wearing a fake mustache, wrapped in tiny Christmas Lights, holding Hershey’s Kisses, hiding in my snow boots? That’s so last year. You need to up your game.” And you’ll be all big-eyed, drop-jawed speechless, wondering how you spawned such a thankless monster.

Or maybe that’s just me. And I don’t even have an Elf on the Shelf. Because I have a “December Cabinet.” It looks like this:

Tradition or Torture?

Tradition or Torture?

Since my kids were toddlers, behind each of those tiny doors, I have placed a slip of paper, announcing some awesome, winter-themed activity we would do that day. Note: THEY WERE TODDLERS. I was a stay-at-home mom. We had ALL DAY to do awesome, winter-themed activities. Now I have work, they have school until 2:30 p.m., then they have afterschool activities, then they have homework, and—perhaps worst of all—they have OPINIONS about what constitutes an “acceptable” December Cabinet activity.

I learned this one dark morning last winter, when my oldest son opened the door-of-the-day, read the slip of paper, threw it on the floor, and groaned.

I don’t remember what I had written on the paper—probably something like “Make a holiday card for a friend or family member” or “If you could give one gift to the world, what would it be?” Something that required a little, I don’t know, generosity or selflessness?

What I do remember: biting my lips to keep the words “spoiled brat” from flying out of my mouth and threatening to shut down the December Cabinet tradition if the attitude didn’t change.

Ho freakin’ ho. Merry freakin’ Christmas.

This year, the kids and I had a little pre-cabinet talk. Well. I talked. I reality-checked: our lives have changed since we started this tradition. I lowered expectations: some days you’ll love what you find in there; some days you won’t. I laid down the law: if you complain, the cabinet goes back into the garage. They accepted my terms and conditions (damn it), so I moved the cabinet to its place of honor in the dining room, probationally.

That same day, my friend Dana Facebook-posted a picture of her family’s Christmas countdown tradition:



Don’t you totally want to be her kid?

She accompanied this image with a phrase that hit home for me: “Keeping the magic alive is exhausting.”

I responded in a Grinch-worthy tone, agreeing wholeheartedly.

Then Dana reality-checked me: “We really only have a few more years to do it before they’re too cool and just want gift cards and car keys.”

Right. I’d forgotten about that. Commence magic-making:

December 2: Build Your Own (Pancake) Snowman

December 2: Build Your Own (Pancake) Snowperson


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  1. This is an awesome tradition. I really want to do it…. (I will probably curse you a few years from now).

    • The December Cabinet has had a renaissance this year, thanks to my friend Dana’s reminder. We went through some growing pains last year, which taught me that I needed to lower my kids’ expectations and also age-up the activities I put in the cabinet. So I’m actually having fun with it again. The other morning our “activity” was going to a coffeehouse for breakfast before school–they got ready to go in about fifteen minutes, and I didn’t have to make (or clean up after) breakfast. Winning! We’re only halfway through the Christmas countdown, so I might run out of ideas that fit our schedule and age group, but so far so good!

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