Elf on a Shelf: The Good, the Bad, and 4 Character Building Ideas

Many of us grew up with Santa, but his little buddy the Elf on a Shelf has gotten growing attention in recent years.

Just like the Santa story, the “Elf” story can lead your kids toward God, or away. We just like to think deeply at Connected Families, and how we celebrate the birth of our Savior is certainly an important topic warranting thoughtfulness. So let’s take a look at the Elf on a Shelf through the all-purpose Connected Families questions: “What’s going on?” and “What should we do?”

What’s going on?

In The Elf on the Shelf, the 2005 book that launched this tradition, the Elf is enlisted as Santa’s helper, sent to watch the events in the house during the day, report back to Santa every night, and find a new spot in the morning. Santa keeps a record of the Elf’s reports and adjusts presents accordingly.

What’s great about this is that it can be so much FUN! The process of finding the elf every morning is quite exciting, especially when parents get creative with clever and sometimes hilarious placement of the elves! Everyone loves the fun… and sharing laughter is an important bond in families.

Another side to the Elf is the behavior-management side. With the Elf carefully watching to report to Santa, parents may get the fringe benefit of some temporary better behavior from kids. Kids (in their minds) work the system and toe the line for a few weeks to get a really big pay-off… which leads to a concern we have about the Elf tradition. It can communicate, “The point of good behavior is to get noticed and rewarded.” And that can hold another subtle message – “Without a reward, you probably wouldn’t want to do the right thing.”

So the Elf tradition as it’s written in the book can be just one more little thing that trains kids to be more concerned about other people’s opinion of them and what it will get them, than their own God-given conscience, compassion, and wisdom… when no one is looking!

What should we do?

Now rest assured, our little Elf buddy isn’t inherently naughty or nice! But if you want to make sure to be thoughtful about the messages your kids receive from your family’s Elf, take a few moments to consider these questions:

  • What are some important messages you want your kids to get about their behavior – not just at Christmas, but all year round?
  • How might you keep the fun, and use the Elf to teach either those important messages or aspects of the true meaning of the holiday?

If you want to communicate some different messages, maybe you can tell your kids the Elf is under different orders this year — to help kids grow in God’s wisdom and kindness. Here are a few creative ways Santa can assign the Elf to do that. (You could even have Santa give Elf a new assignment each year!)

1. Tell the kids that Elf has been instructed to read them a little bit from the Christmas story each day. (You could read a bit straight from the Bible each day, or read from a children’s version of the Christmas story, like this beautifully-illustrated one by Max Lucado.)

2. Have Elf give your kids some marching orders for the day:

  • “Today, look for someone that looks lonely and talk to them for a bit.”
  • “Today, look for something that reminds you of God’s love for you.”
  • “Today, help someone that needs it.”
  • “Today, sing a Christmas carol to Gramma over the phone.”

Then finish with – “Report back tomorrow morning and tell me how that went.”

If they forget, give them another chance and ask a few questions to jog their memory. Help them talk about the joy of blessing others.

3. Have Elf ask your kids questions about their previous day that will help them grow in wisdom. “What kindness happened yesterday when I was on the shelf in the family room and you were playing with Legos? Who remembers that? What did you do that was helpful? What difference did it make?” (If kids can’t remember, be an observant “Elf” yourself, and try the next idea instead.)

4. Have Elf comment on something positive from the day before.

  • “I noticed you sharing your Legos in the family room yesterday. How did that help you have fun?”
  • “I noticed you worked hard with your markers in the family room yesterday. How could we use your gift of art to bless someone today?

Why are we devoting a whole parenting tip to this? Because the little messages our kids get in the ebb and flow of daily life add up to be the core beliefs that they will live by.

As you explain the change in Elf’s job description, you can share the verses below, and have age appropriate conversations about true “good behavior” — it flows not from monitoring and reward, but from a deep place of knowing we are fully loved first!

  • Ephesians 5:1-2a – Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…
  • Col. 3:12 – Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.


The beauty of the gospel is – God is not one who sits on high like Santa or his pointy-eared minions, evaluating our behavior to give us what we deserve. He is Immanuel – God with us
, the one who comes to us in our “misbehavior,” loves us, gives us his righteousness and empowers us to behave as children of God. Let’s celebrate THAT this Christmas!!


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