I will admit it; I have a love/hate relationship with the elf on the shelf.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love crafty things. The elf on the shelf provides the perfect mix of creativity and magic that is so special about the holiday season. However, there is another side to the elf on the shelf. This little Christmas visitor was sent from Santa at the North Pole to report back any naughty or nice behaviors that they see. Often, instead of the elf seeing all the nice things your child does and providing positive praise, it gets used as a threat. “Your elf is watching you (insert negative behavior,) and will tell Santa what you did.”
The concept of “caught you being good” is not a new one.
However, it is one that does not get used enough. This is one of the quickest and most effective ways to reinforce desirable behavior. Everyone likes the good work they do to be acknowledged, children included. Individuals are more likely to demonstrate certain behaviors if we know they result in some kind of reward.
For example, your child shares a toy with his/her sibling. You reinforce this behavior with a positive statement, “I love how you shared your toy with John.” They will be likely to demonstrate this behavior again in the future in order to access further positive praise. Likewise: your child stomps his feet in response to being denied access to something. You respond by saying, “STOP stomping your feet!” Your child may stop at the moment, but long term this statement did nothing to CHANGE the behavior. In fact, they may have even figured out that their stomping feet behavior is something that bothers you. Making them more likely to use this behavior again in the future.
Remember, a good rule of thumb is that children should receive praise four times more frequently than a corrective statement.
I brought this topic up to a colleague and fellow BCBA. I asked her what her thoughts were about the elf on the shelf, and she very candidly shared this statement:
“As a behavior analyst, I know how to handle challenging behavior. This should apply to my own children as well, however, in real life, even behavior analysts aren’t perfect. As in other households, our elf comes back each year and every morning watching the kids find him is both magical and exciting!
Recently the stress of balancing work, kids, Christmas and a million other things took over and on that particular day, I had less patience than usual. As I was dealing with a morning that was short on time and my almost 6-year-old daughter was fighting me over her hair, clothes, and breakfast. I pulled the “elf and Santa card!” Before I even realized it, I found myself threatening that “Santa would not be bringing presents if she continued,” and realized that I immediately paired the elf in a negative way.
To most parents, this may not seem like a big deal but as a behavior analyst, it goes against everything we know!
I gave an empty threat and attempted to “take away” something that I would never follow through with, however, at that moment I felt a loss of control. That particular morning I needed my daughter to STOP arguing with me and get ready for school. As a professional, I spend countless hours instilling the importance of “catching kids being good” and ensuring that teachers, paraprofessionals, and related staff follow through on all demands. I realized I was developing a pattern of reprimanding and correcting my daughter, without taking the time to acknowledge all the good moments throughout her day.
At that moment I took a step back and made a conscious effort to take time throughout the day to praise her for all the easily missed behaviors: when she hung up her backpack, helped her baby brother, and used her manners! These were all behaviors that I wanted to see. As it turned out, she loved all the praise she was receiving and I caught her actively engaging in appropriate behaviors!”
As many of you know, the art of parenting is a challenge.
We often have to make quick decisions and come up with responses at the moment. It can be very easy to get caught up in a cycle of negativity where all we seem to be saying are words like, “No!” “Stop!” “Don’t!”
“No yelling in the restaurant!”
“Don’t dump all your toys!”
The problem with these types of statements is that they let your child know what you don’t like about a behavior; instead of teaching them what desirable behaviors you would like to see. The use of positive phrasing can help you navigate a difficult behavioral situation while also teaching your child the expected behavior.
Instead of: “No yelling in the restaurant!” Try saying: “Use a quiet voice in the restaurant.”
Instead of: “Stop running.” Try saying: “Use walking feet.”
Instead of: “Don’t dump all your toys.” Try saying: “Let’s take a few pieces out at a time.”
After a while, these statements will feel natural, and it will be easier to think of positive ways to let your child know what is expected! The best part is that for the remainder of this holiday season, you have a little helper that you can utilize to deliver this message to your children.
If you are a parent who struggles with thinking of the praise statements that you can give your children, check out this Elf Positive Praise Notes resource!