The Elf on the Shelf is everything that's wrong with modern parenting.

I have flour in my hair.

All day I’ve been pretending that it’s dry shampoo, but it’s not.

Last night at 11pm, I dumped a pile flour onto a plate and squatted down to arrange some felt toys in it, aiming to create the illusion that my (sorry, my kids’) two Elves On The Shelves were frolicking in a snow storm. The final effect was more one of two swingers wrestling at a Colombian costume party, but no matter. It was late, the end of a long day.

Cut to this morning, 6am, my eyes are barely open: “Mum, the elves are sitting in a pile of flour and we don’t know why.”

“Maybe it’s snow,” I mutter, rolling over.

“Why would it be snow? It’s Summer,” my ever-reasonable daughter asks. “Anyway, when are our elves going to do something fun? Like a treasure hunt? Like leave us little notes all over the house to find? Or some eggs that turn into chocolate eggs…. or…”

“I DON’T KNOW,” I’m sitting up, the day is truly upon me. “The elves are MAGIC. I can’t tell them what to do.”

My daughter looks doubtful, my son joins in. “I wish they were harder to find,” he says. “Our elves are pretty boring.”

Welcome to the particular hell that is The Elf On The Shelf. Those creepy little felt dolls that truly represent everything that’s wrong with modern parenting.

Mamamia Out Loud is the podcast with what women are talking about. On this episode Holly Wainwright explains what an ‘Elf on the shelf’ is and Jessie and Mia ask her why the heck she’s doing it. Post continues below.

Today’s parents are boringly busy. Ask us how we are, we’ll tell you: “Manic.” “Crazy”. “Flat out”. “Crawling to the end of the year”.

It’s the default answer for any adult with a job, a smart phone and a couple of extra responsibilities. Like mine, ages six and eight.

The juggling started at birth, and has continued, unrelentingly, up and down the terrifying learning curve of babyworld, through the crippled-by-the-cost-of-childcare years, into the ‘Shit, I forgot to do the home reader’ phase and – in my house – is currently skidding through ‘No, I can’t come on that excursion’ mode.

We’re busy, and we’re guilty. The guilt comes hand in fist with the busyness, and it’s every bit as boring. Basically, most of the adults I know are in a constant state of repentance for all things they’re not doing for their children. Whipping ourselves with questionable reminiscences of calm, home-cooked family meals, a time when no-one was in a whirl of rushed yelling and there were unstructured hours set aside for baking and learning the names of all your children’s friends.

Enter the Elves. We can buy them, to make our children smile. We can share the story – “They move every night while you’re asleep” – and watch those little faces light up. And then we can add them to our never-ending to-do list to create more busyness. And then we can grow to resent them. And then we can feel guilty about that.


Just to completely “close the loop” on this modern fairytale, the kids can watch videos of what all the other elves are doing on YouTube while you’re trying to manage a spare five minutes to have sex on a Saturday morning, and then they can complain to you that their “boring” elves don’t measure up. A lot like your abs on Instagram.


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But hold up. If we’re leaning on the little felt fellas to mop up our parental guilt, perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty. Statistically, modern parents spend more time with their children than those from the golden age we’ve convinced ourselves once existed. Almost every credible study on the topic confirms this, and I didn’t write them all.

The University of Oxford found that when it came to ‘Quality Time’, between 1975 and 2000, mothers more than doubled minutes spent, and fathers tripled it.

And this year the The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth study found that Aussie parents spend more than 250 minutes on average with their children each day, well above the OECD average of 150 minutes, and more time that ANY OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.

Of course, the other reason parents like me are shoving American dolls into the butter and writing notes left-handed and sprinkling teeny-tiny stars over hard-boiled eggs is that we want to make our kids happy. Modern parents, busy and guilty as we are, are very invested in our kids’ happiness. We’ve decided that’s our job (alongside our actual jobs) to deliver them the high-wattage beam on Christmas morning, the sandwiches shaped liked teddy bears to give them a lunchtime giggle and as many playdates as we can cram into our schedules around French, yoga, judo and coding.

Any expert will tell you that none of that is going to guarantee our children happiness, in fact quite the opposite, but we can’t hear them, we’re too busy blending broccoli and acai smoothies.

So sue us, we love our kids. We want them to know we’re putting them first, second, third, and definitely way above ourselves. We’re busy as hell and we’ve bought an extra job at the most stressful time of year.

Beware – Elf on the Shelf is watching for office crimes. Post continues below…

But hey, isn’t that what the true spirit of Christmas is all about?

Now, excuse me. I have a tiny treasure-hunt to organise…

Listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud here:

You can follow Holly Wainwright on Facebook, here. You can buy her novels, The Mummy Bloggers and How To Be Perfect here

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