Elf on the Shelf is, depending on your point of view, a bit of harmless Christmas fun, "a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a ‘tradition’", or the normalising of surveillance. The doll is supposed to be placed in a shelf in the house and moved to a new spot each night because, the story is supposed to go, the dolls go back to the North Pole each night to report to Santa Claus on what the children did during the day.
Yes, that’s really as creepy as it sounds, highly reminiscent of people informing on their neighbours to the Stasi, KGB, Gestapo, or Homeland Security. But the thing is, this story, which began in 2004, was already old: Parents have been teaching their children that they're under surveillance for generations.
Consider first the older commercialised Christmas tradition, Santa Claus. Santa, kids are told, make a list of children who are “naughty” and “nice”, and Santa is always watching. This is summed up in the popular 1934 song, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie:
He sees you when you're sleepingLong before the “commercial juggernaut” of Elf on the Shelf, the commercial juggernaut of Santa Claus was already teaching children to accept that they're being spied on. But even Santa wasn’t alone in watching every move that a child makes: Their religion taught them that, too.
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all teach that their god sees all things and knows all things. Christian kids are taught that Jesus watches them, too, and he’s always watching—always—which is why you should always be good. Just like Santa and his spies on shelves.
This idea that being watched is the incentive to be good is undoubtedly why some Christians attack atheists/agnostics with the nonsense declaration that without religious belief, no one has any incentive to be a good person—as if the ONLY reason to be a good person is because one is frightened that Santa/God/Jesus/Elves on Shelves will see what you did and you’ll be punished you if you do anything remotely naughty, let alone something truly bad. The flip side of that belief is that it implies that without religion, billions of people would be violent, malevolent, murderous thieves—and that’s just plain silly.
The truth is that there are plenty of reasons to be good people and to lead good lives that don’t require any gods or goddesses, or Santa—or government—spying on them. And, because we don’t need an invisible supervisor watching our every move, neither do we need others—Elves on Shelves or Jesus or nosey neighbours—to report back to the head of the spy agency.
The “Elf on the Shelf” thing isn’t, by itself, teaching kids to accept a surveillance state, it just reinforces existing stories teaching kids to accept surveillance using Santa, a god, or Jesus as the spy. The larger question is, if kids grow up accepting the legitimacy of spies knowing “when you're sleeping” and knowing “when you're awake”, once they become adults, what covert surveillance will they think goes too far?
Most kids grow up and develop an innate sense of right and wrong, and knowing what it means to be a good person and to lead a good life. Fostering the belief that they’re under constant surveillance does nothing to advance that.
Still, covert surveillance is growing widely throughout the western world, and we seem to be largely okay with that. Maybe national mottos should be, “You better watch out.”
Footnote: Although this “Elf on the Shelf” thing is relatively new, I had a doll very much like the “new" ones, though dressed in green; I also had a small one dressed in red. I had them in the late 1960s or early 1970s, until my new puppy chewed the green one up (I have no idea what happened the red one). So, yeah, there’s nothing truly new about this except the—and the creepy back story.