Telling children that they're being relentlessly watched and that they're unable to escape the gaze of a home invader is typically frowned upon or at best reserved for a Halloween scare. Yet every year around Christmas, millions of parents tell children this exact horror story.
For the uninitiated, The Elf on the Shelf is a Christmas children's book wherein Santa sends "scout elves" to family homes to monitor children's behavior and report back with their findings. Essentially, these little spies are meant to ensure that children behave during the holiday season, lest they want to be placed on the naughty list by Santa's little snitch.
With each book comes a toy elf. Every night, while the children are sleeping, parents are supposed to place the elf somewhere new in the house, and if Pinterest is to be believed, in some crazy, wacky position. This hide and seek becomes a game for the family, simulating that at night the family's personal elf flew to the North Pole using magic and returned to a fresh post.
I don't have a problem with the hide and seek aspect, which sounds like fun — plus, it's easy to imagine children enjoying the process. What I have trouble with is the watching part and the implication that children will only behave when presents are on the line.
This voyeurism has been documented before. In Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, we are warned that he sees us when we're sleeping, and you better be sure he knows when we're awake. Santa, the clearly type-A person that he is, keeps a detailed list of who in the world is good and who in the world is bad. This stalker-like behavior was unsettling enough when it was an omnipotent figure watching from a distant place. But with the Elf on the Shelf, we're not just sacrificing our right to privacy: we're encouraging it.
Yes, I realize that Santa isn't real, but to children, he is as real as you and me. To them, they think it is completely normal for a small creature to temporarily move into their house for the sole purpose of monitoring behavior.
Because children are a mixture of good and bad, it seems cruel to pretend the goodliness is reserved for the month of December, and even worse that it's predicated on receiving presents. This threat that toys will be rescinded if the elf observes that exceptional behavior standards are not met turns an otherwise lovely holiday into a dystopian alternate reality.
In a modern world where we're concerned with actual spies and organizations relinquishing our personal information, forgive me if I want my Christmas stories to be a little more lighthearted than that.