How Does The Elf On The Shelf Work & What's With All The Cinnamon?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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Unless you've been living under a rock for the past several holiday seasons, you've likely heard about a certain doll who lives in your house and serves as one of Santa's spies. But if you're relatively new to the parenting game, you might not completely understand: how does the Elf on the Shelf work, exactly? There are the technical rules and regulations, to begin with (spoiler alert: He doesn't really have to be a on a shelf), but you might also be wondering about the motivational aspects of the merry little fellow. From a psychological perspective, how does the Elf's presence actually encourage good behavior, assuming that's why you're doing this in the first place, of course?

How Does The Elf On The Shelf Work?

The concept is simple: The Elf is a special visitor sent from the North Pole to observe kids' behavior and report back to the man in the red suit as to whether that behavior falls into the naughty or nice category. Easy enough for even very small children to understand, right? (And, come to think of it, probably only very small children will buy into the whole thing.) When it comes to hiding the Elf, you're pretty much free to do whatever you want, provided you keep these two conditions in mind:

1. Kids are not allowed to touch the Elf; if they do, he will lose his magic.

2. If kids do touch the Elf (because come on, they will), they must write a letter of apology to Santa Claus and sprinkle some cinnamon next to the Elf before they go to bed. This is because, according to the official Elf on a Shelf website, cinnamon is "like vitamins for scout elves." Even so, any Elves that have been touched need to see the North Pole doctors when they go home to get checked out. Yikes!

What Do Experts Think About How The Elf On The Shelf Affects Kids?

Beyond these stipulations, your only limitation is your own imagination (or budget), as you've probably gathered from social media. Want to craft a miniature hot air balloon or marzipan zoo for your Elf? Go for it! But will all your efforts be worth it? Will your kids magically stop whining and start cleaning up their toys because of a glorified Christmas ornament with all-seeing eyes?

They might, but some experts are concerned that this end might not justify the means, however merry.

Psychologist Ewan Gillon, clinical director of First Psychology Scotland, told The Scotsman that the idea of an elf moving around the house at night while everybody is sleeping and constantly watching everything is enough to give some kids a major case of the creeps (understandably).

"The elf itself is one which most children usually consider a positive Christmas character," he said.

"However they may start to feel uneasy knowing that it’s going to come ‘alive’ during the night and they won’t know when, or see it moving around.

"This unknown can cause real anxiety, especially those who may already have a fear of ‘haunted toys’, or toys they have seen come alive in films.”

(Raise your hand if you just momentarily re-imagined the Elf as a Chucky-esque horror movie moppet.)

There's even been a paper published about how the Elf can have negative repercussions on kids by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, in which professors Laura Elizabeth Pinto and Selena Nemorin claim that while the Elf "may be part of a pre-Christmas game and might help manage children's behaviors in the weeks leading up to the holiday, it also sets children up for dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures."

Are There Any Benefits To The Elf On The Shelf?

Sheesh. All that from a little guy made out of felt and plastic? But if you're about to remove the Elf from your Amazon shopping cart, you should know that it's not all bad. After all, kids need constant reminders to do the right thing, which the Elf provides.

“The elf is a visual cue to act nice,” Judith Tellerman, clinical professor of psychology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine told Yahoo Parenting. “It might remind kids not to fight with their brother.”

Plus, as Elf on the Shelf co-creator Chanda Bell noted, the Elf is about more than just scaring kids into staying out of trouble — he's about inspiring them to do good.

“Because the elf reports nice things back to Santa, it provides a great opportunity to encourage families to do kind deeds, give to charity, or participate in philanthropy,” she said.

Hmm, so the Elf can be a good influence on parents, too? How the Elf on the Shelf works, it seems, is ultimately up to you. There are definitely ways to put a positive spin on this tradition if you decide that your family is ready for a pointy-eared friend. (Just make sure you have some cinnamon on hand!)

Paper cited:

Who’s the Boss? "The Elf on the Shelf" and the normalization of surveillance; Laura Pinto, Selena Nemorin 2014

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