The Elf on the Shelf gets a bad rap. When my child was a baby I was pretty vehemently against the idea for a couple of reasons: 1) As if I need another task around the holidays, and 2) I didn’t like the idea of having an Elf “spy” on my kid and report on bad behavior.

It all seemed really consumerist and punitive and I wanted to reject the marketing along with the idea of using external control methods to police my child’s behavior. It was a time when hot takes on the possible negative effects of the Elf were everywhere online and— thanks to an intense episode of This American Life —my partner and I were considering not doing the Santa tradition at all for fear that our child would grow up to be resentful of the lie.

Fast-forward a couple years and we could not deny our child the fun of Santa or even ignore the Elf. When “Elfie” made an appearance in his classroom at day care my kiddo started to get into the idea of elves watching over kids and learned from his peers that elves don’t like it when you touch them or when you are “bad” (a word I try very hard not to use to describe my child’s behavior).

But the Elf (whether the “official” store-bought version or an imaginary one) doesn’t have to be some kind of Santa spy tattling on kids for misdeeds. And it doesn’t have to be another chore to add to Mom’s list (sorry, not sorry, I don’t have time to make Elf dioramas every night).

The beauty of the Elf is that It can be anything we want it to be. And I want it to be a positive parenting tool so that’s what it is in our house.

Here are five ways to use the Elf on the Shelf as a Positive Parenting tool:

1. Change the Elf’s purpose from punitive to positive

So every year around this time the internet dusts off all the old hot takes and we get headlines like “Child Psychologists Issue Warning About ‘Elf On The Shelf’ And Its Effect On Kids.” That’s an easy story to write, as there are indeed many reasons why psychologists might warn against using the Elf as an external tool to manage behavior (“I’m gonna tell the Elf if you don’t pick up your socks” probably isn’t going to help in the long run) but psychologists also point out positives in this tradition.

According to Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Health and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, “Using the Elf as a threat for punishment (e.g., no presents) may be fear-inducing and contrary to the goal of using the Elf to bring joy.”

2. Report good behavior instead of bad

The official Elf on the Shelf website doesn’t say the Elf is a spy noting bad deeds, just that “during the Christmas season, the elves are adopted by families and fly back to the North Pole every night to tell Santa about the day’s adventures.”

Basically, it doesn’t have to be punitive.

Welters suggests that “if parents do call on the Elf to report to Santa, it should be used much more often to reinforce good behavior rather than to report problem behavior.”

So that’s what we do. We tell our Elf about things we’re proud of and awesome things my kid did. One small tweak and the “problematic” elf is a partner in positive partnering.

3. Do your Elf your way (or your child’s way)

Okay, so we don’t have a physical Elf doll in my house. Honestly, I am very into “lazy parenting” right now because just surviving the pandemic has taken all the energy out of my body. Luckily, my child made up their own tradition at home, in a way that really aligns with me not wanting to spend money on a doll I have to move every day (because I would 1000% forget).

Our elf is invisible. He is very small, “the size of a germ” as my kid likes to say. His name is Steven and he lives on a shelf in mom’s closet (probably because my kiddo found wrapped gifts in there once). He has an apartment in the closet, but we take him out every day and hang out with him. He works for both Santa and the postal service and can transport to other kids’ houses through a wormhole portal on my dresser. It’s a whole thing.

But tiny Steven’s origin story isn’t really the important part here. The important part is that we made it work for us.

According to Westers, that’s kind of the key to finding joy in the elf tradition. It would not be fun for me (and therefore my kid) if I was trying to make Pinterest-worthy scenes with the elf every night (no judgment if that’s your jam, it’s just not something I’m good at or can prioritize.

“If parents feel pressure to keep up with other parents by matching or one-upping the ideas they post on social media – or if what was initially intended as a source of joy becomes more of a burden–then maybe the Elf on the Shelf should pack up and return to the North Pole,” says Westers.

4. Let kids open up to the Elf

Sometimes my kiddo feels big feelings and recently, they’d rather talk to Steven than me. They ask me to get Steven out of the closet and they have a chat. Last weekend we got Steven out of the closet like twenty times for little, one-sided convos (one of which was about how “mom is frustrating me”).

As Karen Majors, a child psychologist at University College London’s Institute of Education previously told The Globe and Mail , taking to imaginary friends can help kids see issues from a different perspective.

“It’s a good way of processing what’s going on around them,” Majors explained.

Somedays, you just have to process big feelings to a small elf.

5. The Elf can have a positive impact on imagination

While plenty of internet hot takes skewer the elf in the name of child phycology, Westers points out that “Many psychologists suggest that, like believing in Santa, participating in the Elf on the Shelf can foster creativity and imagination .”

According to Westers, “this depends on how ‘imagination’ is defined. Some argue that imagination requires pretending, and to pretend that the Elf on the Shelf comes to life at night would require knowing that it does not actually do so.”

My child is still very young, and at an age when the barrier between pretend and real is so permeable.

But when they recently asked me “is Steven pretend or real?” I was honest. I told them that Steven came from their imagination and how cool that was.

And that didn’t actually change anything. Steven is still “here”. In my closet. Taking down notes about my child’s Christmas list and splitting his workdays between Santa’s office and the post office.

When Elf on the Shelf creator and author Carol Aebersold wrote the original Elf on the Shelf book published back in 2004 she was writing one elf’s story. It’s a great story. But it doesn’t have to be your family’s elf story. Maybe Aebersold’s incredible imagination can inspire your child to write their own.