Elf on the Shelf Helps Me Discipline My Kids (& I’m Not Sorry About it)

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I love December. I love the lead up to the holidays. I love Christmas music and cookie baking and the smell of cinnamon. I love decorating the tree. I also love how well my kids behave.

If during the rest of the year they are pretty good kids, then come December they are little angels. They follow instructions. They want to get ready for school in the morning. They wipe and flush after going to the bathroom without my usual prodding. They will forgo their coveted iPad and TV time for books and family togetherness.

You might have guessed that my family celebrates Christmas this time of year. Each December, I’m grateful that my kids still believe in Santa. Not only that, they believe in (miniature-sized drum roll) the Elf on the Shelf.

I admit, at first I thought the whole idea of Elf on the Shelf was slightly disturbing. Try to explain it to anyone who doesn’t have kids and it sounds really weird — barring on psychotic. There’s this spindly-shanked, beady-eyed elf with a mischievous smile that is always watching my children. Spooky! Then, at night, the little doll flies back to the North Pole where she reports good and bad behavior to the Big Guy. Creepy? Yes. Effective? Absolutely.

Since so much of parenting is about the teaching moments, I feel like this is my golden opportunity each year. When Mittens comes out of hiding, she can be the neutral party that tells my kids they are being brats or snobs (not in those words, of course), or gets them to eat healthier, or just behave better in general.

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Yeah, yeah, I’m sort of bribing them with the promise of the presents they will receive at Christmas (“If you’re good, Mittens will tell Santa and he will give you what you ask for!”), but the genius of my elf system is that she can broach any topic and it doesn’t seem as confrontational as when I bring it up.

For example, both of my kids have trouble going to bed at night. In these cases, Mittens might leave a note to say how important sleep is for the body to grow. Or she could leave a candy cane under their pillows with the reassuring promise of sweet dreams from now on. You might think Mittens is just full of excuses. I think Mittens is helping my kids cope.

When it comes to discipline, Mittens knows how to make her mark. She not only leave notes when they aren’t acting like the fine, beautiful citizens of the world that I know my kids can be, but she tells them what she expects of them. And if you must know, she requires of them the same good-natured, well-mannered stuff I require of them. Here again, you might just think Mittens is full of crap. I think I’m going to make a tee shirt with her face on it that reads, “Mittens is my spirit animal!”

Her notes know no boundaries. She puts them under pillows or slips them into lunch boxes. Mittens is everywhere! (Ok, I know. It’s creepy. But it works!) Recently, she informed my older daughter that if she didn’t eat all of her yogurt, Santa would be receiving a negative report. Turns out, my daughter loves yogurt now. When my younger daughter was still having trouble pooping in the potty, Mittens told her “Even Santa poops in a toilet.” Ok, that note didn’t exactly do the trick. (If you must know, it really just prompted a whole discussion on the color of Santa’s poop.)

I would be lying, of course, if I didn’t tell you that I do have momentary pangs of guilt about farming the parenting out to Mittens. But as a mom, I so rarely get a break from being “on” with my kids. And, let’s face it, I feel guilty when I forget to bring in school snack or send my daughter to school with the sniffles or when I don’t turn in a permission slip on time…You know what? Mittens should carry some of the burden! I have to milk this for as long as possible!

Man, January is really going to suck.

Photos: Meredith Franco Meyers