Thursday, December 18, 2014

No Elf For My Shelf..

Unless you've been living under a rock or go by the name of Rip Van Winkle, then surely you've heard of the Elf on the Shelf. It seems you cant scroll through any social media feed without coming across a ton of different elves set up in precarious scenarios. This creepy  popular child's toy has been sweeping the nation since 2005 and left a trail of tired parents along the way. Since the boys are getting older and dealing with some outside influences, I wanted to get a head start and figure out whether or not this was something we would have to deal with. So I decided to weigh the possible pros and cons in order to get a better idea, this is what I was able to come up with.

Apparently, this Elf was created by a very well meaning pair of sisters who have fond memories of a lovable little elf their mother lovingly told them was there to keep an eye on them for Santa. Much like anything that goes mainstream, it evolves. In this case, the Elf comes once a year to keep a watchful eye on little boys and girls, he hides in new and creative spaces each day and returns to the North Pole to report back on the children's daily behavior. But not before wreaking some sort of havoc and leaving a mess behind (a mess created by parents only to be cleaned up by parents). This had me wondering who this fad is serving more, the parents or their children? 

Has this trend become another competition among parents? Another way to keep up with the Joneses? Why does it seem everyone wants to be the Griswold's nowadays? More added pressure during already demanding / exhausting holiday festivities? I think the moral of the Griswold Family Christmas movies has been lost along the way. It was the focus on family and the simplicity of the season that sustained them. They were lost in all the madness and the chaos of the holiday dealing with societal pressures and living up to unrealistic expectations. We've made a real effort of taking things slow this season and only committing to events that we absolutely don't want to miss while playing everything by ear. Feeling comfortable with saying no to anything that's going to add pressure or take away from our family time, and relishing in the moment. Doing less with more presence was the goal and I'm proud that we've stuck to our guns thus far and haven't fallen victim to fitting EVERY holiday themed activity on our calendar simply for the sake of doing it all.

I kept coming across stories of tired parents jolting out of bed at 3 am only to remember they never moved the elf, the pressures of having to come up with new and mischievous scenarios to invent for their elf. Only to have to get up early the next morning and clean up said mischief. I can't be the only parent who would be stressed out by this. I've even heard tales of children being distraught by their elves having to leave when the season is over, the last thing I want Christmas morning is two screaming toddlers unable to enjoy their gifts.

Aside from the parental commitment and any stress it may bring, or the blatant hypocrisy with this fiendish elf sent here to monitor all of your behavior while exhibiting terrible behavior of his own, there are other issues I have with this elf. Like the fact that it's used as a disciplinary tool to coerce children to behave accordingly. Lets talk behaviorism people.. Behaviorism with a friendly face is still behaviorism, and many of its effects will still be the same.

Behaviorism is an approach to psychology that combines different elements. Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable behavior as opposed to internal events like thinking or feeling. It's a worldview that operates on a principle of "stimulus response". In other words, you are your behavior.
Let's just say I'm not a fan.

Alfie Kohn
I've spent a good part of this year reading up on all of Alfie Kohn's research on behaviorism and human response. Some of his work includes "Unconditional Parenting", "Beyond Discipline" and "Punished By Rewards". The latter being one of my favorites. Tying rewards to a child's behavior is a confusing and vicious cycle. Moving forward children may only be responsive to, or require rewards. If the parent is convinced it's unrealistic to expect children to do what they're supposed to in the absence of an incentive, then what are the children supposed to think of themselves? By providing a reward for certain behavior, it makes good behavior seem like a means to an end, in fact it makes the reward the end, not the behavior. Let's give kids a little credit. I want my boys to do what is right because they are supposed to, because it's the right thing to do and lastly because they want to do it.

"The belief that we can offer rewards to jump start a behavior and then simply fade them out presumes, that the effects of rewards do not carry over beyond acquisition into later occurrences of the activity in question, and do not transfer to related but different activities. There is no reason to believe that there is anything self contained about the effects of a reinforcement regimen. -Barry Schwartz

This isn't to say that once you reward a child you will ALWAYS have to provide a reward, but you cannot remove the reward system without a consequence. "You cannot put a couch in a room, then remove it without having changed the room."

The problem with the elf is that it is an unclear threat. Rewards that are contingent upon a required behavior defeats the very purpose it wishes to serve. The more you want what is being dangled in front of you, the more you resent what you have to do to get it. When we are repeatedly offered extrinsic motivators (toys, candy, screen time, food, bribes of all natures) we come to find the task or behavior less appealing in itself than we did before.

Therefore, with our intrinsic motivation having been "shelfed by the elf", we are less likely to engage in this activity unless offered an inducement for doing so. Some may suggest that the elf just serves as a reminder for children to make the right decisions themselves putting the power in their hands. This still does not solve the problem, because the desired behavior is still framed as a pre-requisite for -an obstacle to- getting the reward. Whether the reward is given by the adults or the child is allowed to reward themselves doesn't change the fact that the introduction of the reward in the first place changes the very frame in which we place the behavior. 

A very wise woman by the name of Susan Caruso, Founder of Sunflower Creative Arts, once told me - and it has been my mantra in parenting- that when something isn't working, flowing or just plain doesn't feel right. You can change the frame in which you view it, it has the ability to change the situation itself. The problem does not result from the application of reinforcements; it resides at the very core of extrinsic motivation. 

It is important to refrain from rewarding children for engaging in an activity or behavior that we would like them to find intrinsically motivating. Being patient, kind, compassionate and caring are alll qualities I want my children to possess because it feels right. NOT because there's a prize / reward / incentive behind it. If so, then what are we setting them up to believe? That all good deeds should be recognized, rewarded or praised? Rewards serve as a shortcut, it clearly changes the reason for doing something immediately. "Extrinsic motivators are most dangerous when offered for things we want children to want to do." In fact, research shows that extrinsic motivators nearly always reduce creativity.

Rewards can stifle creativity for both the child and for the parent / teacher / manager. Making it an easy out for the child to get what they are looking for and easily becoming a crutch for the parent, a vicious cycle indeed. It can be applied in all aspects of your life. Dangling a carrot in front of a persons face doesn't awaken anything but a sense of urgency to "Get That Carrot." Denying the intrinsic motivation and satisfaction only allows for the extrinsic needs to become stronger. Children's want / need list becomes bigger and more demanding, creating a monster. Children can develop stronger extrinsic needs as a substitute for more basic unsatisfied needs. We see this all the time in demanding "tweens."

Rewards don't work on tasks of particularly low interest either. For instance, growing up I despised math, it was my worst subject. I just couldn't understand it. All my life I dealt with educators who used every reward in the book, from gold stars to special priveleges and even candy! This never worked, for years I was insecure about math as it progressively got harder and harder for me. It took one teacher (Mr. Brown, if you're out there YOU ROCK!) I'll never forget what he taught me. He taught math in a way that made it both interesting and attainable. His creativity in making scenarios fun and informative opened up new doors for me. It did wonders for my self confidence and at the end of the semester I was in love with Algebra. There were no frills no thrills, just an understanding of what needed to be done and a willingness to find a creative way to get there together. 

Needless to say we have decided to pass on this Elf and all that he brings. I hate to make it all sound so dim, especially seeing as how the creators of this elf were trying to introduce a simple toy without batteries or flashing lights to adopt different traditions for each family (and it has for many families) but it just isn't the right fit for me and my family. It's a shame that it has been used as a conduit for mainstream "parent-centered" discipline and pop behaviorism. However, in my research I have been able to find some pretty uplifting and creative ways for families to put a positive spin on this mischievous elf if you have already started on this path and would like to switch gears, or if you have children begging for Santa's very own spy. For more on this click here.

Sorry Elf!

Essentially Yours,

No elves were harmed or dismembered in the writing of this post.

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