Do Threats of Punishment Serve a Spiritual Purpose?

To Elf or not to Elf? Every December, parents on my social media feeds wrestle with this Christmas conundrum. More than 19 million copies of The Elf on the Shelf have been sold since the Elf made his debut in 2005. That’s a LOT of households buying into the idea of Santa sending out scout elves to monitor whether children are naughty or nice.

Parents’ love/hate relationship with the elf partly has to do with the mandate that he move to a new surveillance spot overnight. Forget to relocate the elf and your child may think it has lost its magical power to report back to the North Pole and return. But parents also wonder about the negative effects of magnifying Santa’s threat to withhold presents from children who are naughty. The elf can’t help but see some misbehavior each day and then sharing that information with the jolly old man.

Researchers have long been intrigued by the role threats of punishment play in children’s lives. From stories of punitive deities and debates about appropriate disciplinary actions to mythical figures (like Santa) who keep score, children are introduced to the idea of punishment. But how do they understand this concept? And does the threat of punishment serve a useful spiritual purpose?

A series of studies by psychologists James Dunlea and Larisa Heiphetz found that younger elementary children see punishment as a way to improve someone’s behavior. They assume that a person who has been punished is a better person afterward. The researchers attribute this to children’s optimism: they want to believe that people can change. It doesn’t matter to them if the punishment is severe (incarceration) or minor (time out). From a child’s perspective, punishment helps make the world a better place.

Certainly, children don’t themselves enjoy being punished. But what their positive thinking about punishment suggests is that children have a sense of moral responsibility and believe in moral transformation. They are intrigued by Santa’s mandate to be good and accept that he would enforce that expectation through an army of elf spies who tattle on wrongdoers. Thus, most psychologists see no problem with families inviting The Elf on the Shelf into their homes.

Keep in mind, however, that some children are more sensitive to moral judgment than others. If a child becomes so worried about what the elf will say to Santa that they are afraid to play in the elf’s presence, then put the elf away. Do the same if a child repeatedly becomes distraught about the elf for any reason.

Also, resist the urge to speak on the elf’s behalf and label a child ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’. Instead, focus on supporting children as they strive to act morally. Applaud specific helpful behaviors (“I appreciate how quickly you picked up your toys!”) and suggest ways to improve when behavior is problematic (“If you and your sister work together, the job will be done sooner”). Reminding children that you – and Santa – offer second chances plays into their positive thinking about the possibility of personal transformation.



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