Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

It’s taken over Pinterest. It’s all over Facebook. It’s all the rage. It’s the Elf on a Shelf. Supposedly this little magic elf comes to watch your children’s behavior and report back to Santa whether they’ve been naughty or nice. It also seems to get involved in all sorts of shenanigans while it’s running around magically alive while the children sleep.

It’s all in good fun, right? Well, maybe. I love these little elves and think they’re a blast. We have one too, although he’s a little different. Their silly antics can cause lots of laughter, and laughter is good for families. Laughter connects us. What disconnects us is using it as a tattletale elf.

From the Cambridge Dictionary: tattletale (noun) a person, especially a child, who secretly tells someone in authority, especially a teacher, that someone else has done something bad, often in order to cause trouble.

So, yes, the Elf on the Shelf is a big ole tattletale, running to tattle to Santa when the children misbehave so that they’ll be punished with a lump of coal.

Let’s try a short exercise.
Imagine for a moment that you’re dog tired and not in a very chipper mood. I know, it’s so hard to imagine, isn’t it? So, here you are, not feeling (or acting) your best. The kids are wired, the place is a mess, you have a to-do list a mile long, and bedtime can’t come fast enough.

Now imagine if your spouse had someone watching your every move and reporting back to, let’s say, your mother-in-law. Feeling resentful yet? You may be yelling less, but I’d bet you’re feeling disconnected from your spouse. And your mother-in-law. That’s because threats and tricks don’t change hearts. They don’t help us be better people.

At best, they force us to pretend to be better people as long as we are under a threat, but this only builds feelings of anger, resentment, and for some kids, shame. These feelings cause people to behave worse, not better.

To really thwart negative behavior and inspire positive behavior from your children, you have to have their hearts. You cannot change a heart that you can’t reach. The big secret to easier parenting is that your relationship matters most, so anything that disconnects and harms the relationship is moving in the wrong direction.

If you want better behavior from your children this holiday season, here are 5 ways to bring it out in them.

1. Fall back in love.
The love we feel for our children never goes away, but children don’t always feel our love, especially when we’ve been feeling like we don’t like them very much. Negative cycles can be tough to shake out of, but it’s really important that your child feels unconditionally loved, accepted, and valued by you. Re-frame any negative perceptions you’ve formed. For example, “stubborn” could be re-framed into “perseverant.” There’s always a positive side if you look hard enough. The way we feel about our children and their intentions affects the way we treat them.

2. Get your relationship right.
If your relationship has been strained and you’re feeling disconnected, your child is probably disconnected too. Re-connect through playing, being present without distractions, active listening, and finding ways to laugh together every day.

3. Be a team.
If you have an “us versus them” mentality, they’ll adopt it, too. This sets you up for years of power struggles. Let your child know you’re on her side. Getting out of the dictator or manager mindset and into a mentor or leader mindset will help you come alongside your children as the example and coach that they need through childhood.

4. Use consequences that teach.
If a consequence is necessary, aim for consequences that teach rather than just punish. I’ve written a full article explaining this in detail which you can find here.

5. Build them up.
Children who feel good about themselves will behave well. We should always be looking for the light in our children and reflecting it back to them. We want to see the good in them and help them see it, too.

Use encouraging phrases like these:
*That was so helpful. Thank you.
*You are so kind to do that.
*I’m proud of you for ___.
*I believe in you.
*I like spending time with you.
*You’re so much fun to be around!

Here are some alternative uses for your elves:

Kindness Elves by The Imagination Tree are a popular alternative.

Conscious Discipline suggests using heart-shaped glasses for your elf to see the good behaviors you want to inspire rather than the bad ones. Here’s a post on their Facebook page about it.

Happy Hooligans has 7 cute alternatives here.

Of course, you could always keep your current tradition, just ditching the tattletale part.

**This post was originally published at Creative Child Magazine. For more of my positive parenting articles at Creative Child, click here.