The Motivation of Fear: Elf on a Shelf


I think we see this use of fear as a motivator in so many different ways.  Last blog I talked about using fear to coerce people into doing the right thing. Today I want to talk about using fear as a motivator at Christmas. In other cultures, people use some really dark and twisted things to scare kids into being good. In Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Tyrol and parts of Northern Italy Krumpus is a thing. Ya, the half-goat/half-demon thing they made a horror movie about. His job is to punish children by drowning them, eating them or taking them to Hell… terrifying. Less scary but far more racist is Black Pete! Or Zwarte Pete is a white person dressed in blackface with painfully racist stereotypically black features such as big red lips, nappy hair and gold hooped earrings. Black Pete is a helper to Santa but also punishes children, at least in Dutch culture, by bringing them back to Spain… sorry Spain.

In North America, we think these traditions may be weird at best but more likely, we think they are horrible. My self-reflective question is, are we any different? Enter the infamous Elf on a Shelf! At our office at the church in London, we had one named Jacques. Let’s start by admitting the Elf is creepy! He watches you to see if you are good and then he moves around at night but when you see him he never moves…  ahem, Trilogy of Terror, Chucky, Annabelle, Night of the Living Dummies…. need I go on, terrifying! So the truth is we are no better than the European countries who have basically just different versions of the same idea, scare your child into being good.


Here is where the pill gets even harder to swallow. Isn’t it the same idea with our beloved Santa Claus too? I mean, he’s not going to steal children and drown them but a lump of coal? In the end, it is just more fear to coerce kids to be good. The real issue though is what we talked about in my last blog. We use God for this purpose as well. A man in the sky who can see everything you do to make sure you are being good with eternal punishment in Hell if you are not good. An Atheist might say, “Oh all of these are just myths for children that we don’t need to listen to once we are an adult.” However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is logical to think that there is more than just our physical world and therefore reasonable to believe in God.

Now I have no problem with Elf on a Shelf, I think it’s a great and fun family thing to do. Same with Santa and obviously God… other cultures, you do you. The point is that we are teaching children a terrible message if we use any of these figures in this way. We teach them that they are only as valuable as what they do. We teach them conditional love rather than unconditional love. The message is “if you are good, you will get a gold star.” Ask Job from the Bible how that works out! I think this perpetuates the Utilitarian principle that you are what you do. If you commit crimes, you are a criminal. If you don’t do well at school, you are dumb. It becomes an identity and an identity is hard to shake once it is ingrained. I tell kids all the time, there are NO bad people. People are all inherently good, but some people choose to do bad actions. Once you define a person as something, once that label is associated with who they are as a human being, how can they ever act without it influencing them?



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