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Vickroy: Can Elf on Shelf help parents get through Christmas?

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Updated: December 30, 2012 6:06AM



For what seems like forever, parents have strived to do the impossible: Keep peace on Earth at Christmastime.

They employ threats, incentives, even fictional characters to maintain law and order during the chaotic month of December.

Lately, they’ve begun employing the Elf on the Shelf, a movement aimed at bridging the distance between a child’s home and the North Pole.

Sold at local department and bookstores, the Elf comes with a storybook explaining the imp’s mission, which is to live among the toy recipients and be a scout for Santa. There’s also an Elf on the Shelf website offering merchandise and activities. A coordinating movie, “An Elf’s Story,” will air at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 14 on CBS-TV.

Locally, many public libraries, including the one in Orland Park, have coordinated Elf on the Shelf hide and seek games for young patrons.

Does it work?

Parents are lucky that children don’t see Santa, a fat guy in red who squeezes his way into your home by way of the chimney, the way adults would, as weird.

Children are trusting and big supporters of make-believe. Plus, they know Santa will bring fun stuff to good kids on Christmas morning.

A gentle reminder that the big guy is watching is sometimes all it takes to shag wayward tots from the curb. Other times, parents need something more.

Kids these days are savvy. They want proof, or at least evidence, that Santa truly works 24/7. Sure, Mom may have eyes in the back of her head, but how can one man watch so many children while overseeing production of all those toys and keeping an eye on airborne reindeer?

Enter the elf.

“It watches over the house,” said Colleen Sears, a teacher at Little Blossom Early Education Center in Mokena.

Each night, the elf flies back to the North Pole and reports on the behavior of the children it watches.

“Some parents have a lot of fun with it; they get really creative about it,” Sears said. “The elf leaves special messages around the house; it writes on the bathroom mirror.

“It’s cute,” she said. “The kids here are all excited about it.”

They like to name their elf, and they have fun seeking out its new location in their home each morning.

Jaime Michielsen, an occupational therapist for Tinley Park Community School District 146, has heard nothing but good things about the elf from other parents.

“I want it because I think it would help my 3-year-old remember to be nice,” the New Lenox mother of two said.

Eli doesn’t quite grasp the idea that Santa is watching at all times, she said.

“He’s very smart, but he’s also very stubborn. You hear about the terrible 2s, but I think 3 is harder in some ways,” she said.

Having a visual in the home to remind him to mind his manners would help a lot, she said.

She’s deterred, however, by the price. The Elf on the Shelf retails for about $30.

Good parents, good kids?

True, Christmas doesn’t always go according to plan.

Bonnie Lew, however, is a firm believer in its magic.

“But it has to be done the right way,” said Lew, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds in the Tinley Park Park District’s Tot Time program.

“You have to present Santa and the Elf in a positive way,” she said. “Santa is watching for all the wonderful things little boys and girls do to help their moms and dads. Emphasize that he’s keeping tabs on good behavior, not bad.”

Carol Morrison, executive director of the Family Development Center at Governors State University, said this time of year can be very challenging for parents. Time constraints and limited resources can make mincemeat out of high expectations.

Children learn very quickly that threats often are empty.

“In order for a threat to work, a parent has to be prepared to follow through,” Morrison said. Few kids wake up to actually find coal on Christmas morning.

“It’s a lot harder nowadays for parents,” she said. “A lot of marketing is aimed at kids. Parents really need to limit TV and tell kids not to set their expectations too high.”

She reminds parents that the most effective parenting method is what experts call “authoritative.” They set strict, clear rules, always follow through but in a loving way, and the punishment fits the crime. You spill the milk, you clean it up.

By contrast, she said, the most ineffective style of parenting is known as “authoritarian,” which is also very strict but uses lots of threats and lots of punishment that often doesn’t make sense to the child. You spill the milk, you end up in timeout. This style, in the long run, she said, leads to turbulent teen years.

Her advice for getting through the next few weeks is, “As much as possible, keep kids on a regular schedule.”

Be aware that children can be just as stressed by the jump in activity, sugar and expectations as adults can be, she said.

“I personally don’t think it’s good to give kids everything,” she said. ”Don’t over-promise. If you can’t deliver an iPad, don’t promise one.”

Instead, teach them how to save for something they want. And teach them what kindness and compassion mean, she said.

Use Santa and the Elf in subtle, nonthreatening ways to reinforce desirable behavior.

And, if all goes well, peace will reign. At least until naptime.



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