My daughter ran over to me, excited. “Mommy, mommy! Toodles is coming tonight!”
“Who is Toodles?” I asked, perfectly aware that she was talking about her cousin’s Elf from the popular trend Elf of the Shelf.
“Toodles the Elf!”
“Do you know why Toodles comes to their house?”
“He makes sure that they are good so Santa will come at Christmas.”
I paused. I didn’t register excitement and I didn’t tell her that an Elf would be visiting us. Instead, I decided to continue the conversation with as much compassionate as possible.
I began, “You know we don’t have an Elf, right?”
She does know. She has noticed. I told her, “Listen, we don’t have an Elf because we don’t need someone to tell us whether or not we’ve been good. We’re good every day, right? No matter if it’s Christmas time or not. Santa will always come to our house, AJ, because we always do our best to do the right thing and to be good people.”
She didn’t look surprised. She looked serious and pensive. Her eyes grew to the size of saucers and she responded with “Even when I’m frustrated?” When she has something that’s really bothering her, she doesn’t look me in the eye. I forced her to look at me. I made eye contact and I told her that yes, even when she’s frustrated, she’s still “good.”
When she has something that’s really bothering her, she doesn’t look me in the eye. I forced her to look at me. I made eye contact and I told her that yes, even when she’s frustrated, she’s still “good.” I told her that nothing she did would ever keep Santa from coming to visit our house. She seemed basically satisfied and ran off to be with her cousins.
In that moment, I saw the weight of what being “good” means to my daughter. Good means perfection. Good means no mistakes. Good means never getting frustrated. Sometimes my daughter’s emotions are so big she can’t control them. She screams in frustration and anger and I’m shocked at how such a small body can contain such grand feelings. I see myself in her – a person who experiences waves of emotion that seem insurmountable and the feeling that you might explode if you don’t get them out somehow.
How do we talk to children about the idea of being “good?” What does that even mean? Are events where gifts are customary supposed to be used as a dangling carrot to elicit behavior we deem acceptable? Don’t we give our children birthday, Christmas, or other gifts just because we want to share with them? I think gifts are more for the person giving them. It’s a way for us to show our hearts to someone we love, and hopefully, that expression of our love brings them joy.
I have several friends who really enjoy the Elf on the Shelf experience, and their posts on social media are fun to follow. They clearly have a great time creating different scenarios for their children to discover. I think the fundamental idea behind the trend is to bring an additional element of magic to the Christmas season, which is beautiful and sweet.
I guess I just don’t want to start a cycle of what feels like entitlement or expectation that my children “deserve” things. It’s heavy talk for a 5-year-old, but what if the only person who is “watching” to make sure we are good is ourselves? I want her to hold herself to a high standard because it feels good to know that you did your best, whether other people see it or not. We can do random acts of kindness any time of the year, and we can work on ourselves to be our personal best without the expectation of a physical reward. I think the reward is the inner peace and fortitude we gain when we make the decisions that are the best we can do at the moment.
I want her to know that being “good” means feeling overwhelmed and messy and showing up to work hard anyway. Or that having moments of anger or frustration are part of being a human being and it’s never too late to start over and try again. I guess this holiday trend of the watchful Elf feels like the Christmas version of the participation certificate. I’m certain this isn’t a popular opinion, and maybe I’m a party-pooper, but I think the season can be magical and hopeful however you observe it. And I think we are all at our core exceptionally good.