IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

I refuse to get an Elf on the Shelf. Does that make me a Grinch?

I emphatically do not want to add another chore to my holiday plate. But am I missing out on magic?
Elf on the shelf refusal
TODAY Illustration / KatOm / Alamy Stock Photo

Editor’s note: This story may contain spoilers for prying little eyes!

I have successfully resisted the siren song of the Elf on the Shelf for seven years now.

At first my kids were too young to notice. Elves started invading the homes of their friends, but the kids didn't bat an eye. As a crafty person who loves holiday traditions, I was tempted to join in the "fun" ... until I remembered the stress and hassle of setting alarms for Tooth Fairy duty.

Here's the deal with the Elf on the Shelf. You go to an "Adoption Center" (like Target or Wal-Mart) to "adopt" a Scout Elf (at roughly $29.95) who travels from the North Pole to your home, where the Elf observes your kids all day and then flies back to Santa every night to give in-person reports for Santa's "nice list." Upon returning to your home to continue spying in the morning, the Elf finds a new secret spot from which to watch your kids.

If you look at Instagram, it can seem like “everyone” is setting up gorgeous, elaborate, hilarious, intimidatingly clever scenes for their Elves.

I know you can hack the system by looking up free ideas or ordering Elf kits with 24 days of props, but even that feels like too much. It's just more stuff to remember, execute and hide from the kids.

Two years ago, my husband thought it would be "really fun" to get an Elf. Our conversation on the topic went something like this:

Him: "Let's get an Elf on the Shelf this year. The kids would absolutely love it!"

Me: "I'm happy to bring an Elf into the house. I just can't manage the whole thing. I'm already buying gifts, sending Christmas cards and doing the Advent calendar. So can you report for Elf duty every single night?"

Him: [silence]

I successfully avoided Elf drudgery yet again.

But now the kids are 6 and 7 and so excited for Christmas — and so sad that their cousins and friends have Elves but we don't. And it doesn't help that the Elves now have a trillion Netflix specials.


What's an already-exhausted, Christmas-loving mom to do?

Is the Elf on the Shelf coming to town?

I asked a Facebook group for moms in my area how they felt about Elf on the Shelf.

  • "I have enough with Santa and the tooth fairy lol."

Amen, sister. With the Tooth Fairy, Santa, the Easter Bunny, a St. Patrick's Day leprechaun and now a Desk Fairy at school, I'm not sure how to keep all of these magical balls in the air.

  • "I have a love-hate relationship with it. I love the idea of seeing my kids run around the house looking for him, but as parents we already have a million things to do before bed so I hate that part. Kids are only little once, so we will just keep dragging ourselves to do it because one day they will grow up and won’t care."

This one made me think. How many years of Santa do we have left? Two? Three? I'd love to make the most of that time. Am I missing out on squeezing every drop of Christmas magic from the season? 

  • "I thank G-d EVERY DAY that this became a thing just as my kids were outgrowing what would have been that phase. I know myself — I would have embraced it to make it epic, and been so exhausted with everything else at holiday time. #spared"

This fellow overachiever really gets me.

Sure, I could do the bare minimum Elf duties and just to move the Elf from place to place to get a parent participation trophy. But that wouldn't satisfy me. I would concoct an elaborate storyline and make props. I can't "half-Elf" it. I would be all in.

From that Facebook post, I received a direct message from psychologist and mom of two Adrian Oxman, who lent me her professional opinion about using the Elf as a spy for Santa:

  • "Excessive extrinsic motivation is not an effective parenting technique and using threats and shame to control a child’s behavior can have potentially harmful consequences. Our kids are 'good' kids even if they behave in a way we don’t want them to."

Reading that made me feel terrible about ever mentioning Santa's "naughty" list.

Oxman ends our Facebook conversation with the same thing I have said a million times: "Sorry to be a Grinch. I swear I do love the holiday season."

Me too! And that's the problem.

Making Christmas magic

As a kid, I LOVED Santa. I believed in Santa until I was way too old to still believe in Santa. I didn't mind that Santa was "watching" me because I was an oldest child and a people pleaser who always wanted to do the right thing anyway.

I want to make Christmas as magical for my kids as it was for me. We watch all the Christmas movies. We construct gingerbread houses. We trim the tree that is filled with individual, personalized ornaments we give the kids yearly. Heck, we even celebrate St. Nicholas Day, which I loved as a kid yet find extremely difficult to explain as an adult. But I do it anyway because it's Christmas.

Would our family Christmas be more magical with an Elf on the Shelf? I keep re-reading the pro-Elf Facebook messages I received.

  • "I love it. Lol. It is magical and my daughter gets so excited."
  • "I love the idea of the Elf so much that I’ve turned our Mensch into our Jewish version."
  • “We have 2! I have fun with it and my kids love it.”

Am I willing to invest my time, paycheck and sanity for this tradition that may or may not pay in Christmas cuddles and core memories?

As a result of this encouragement, I finally worked up the courage to go to the Elf on the Shelf website. And it made me want to curl up and take a long winter's nap.

Because all Elves are not created equal. There are traditional Elves in their red and white jumpsuits, Elf carriers, "Claus couture" Elf pjs, Elf pets and even an Elf ballgown.

Am I willing to invest my time, paycheck and sanity for this tradition that may or may not pay in Christmas cuddles and core memories?

I'm still not sure.

But I have until the end of Scout Elf Return Week™ to decide.