By now you must have at least heard of the Elf on the Shelf, even if you haven’t met him in the flesh yet – the cute little ‘magical helper’ sent down by Santa to report back on the naughty or nice behaviour of children. It’s a clever idea and families love the sense of magic and mischief his presence brings into the home during the festive season. Parents also swear by his seemingly magical effectiveness as their own little helper – squabbling or bad behaviour are stopped in their tracks the minute kids are reminded of the presence of Santa’s sweet little spy. But, hang on a minute there... A spy? Sitting on the shelf in your children’s bedroom? Isn’t that a bit... sinister?

While there’s no doubt that both kids and adults get a huge amount of joy from the pixie-dust aspect of having an Elf on the Shelf, experts warn that it could become a dangerous parental crutch. Three child psychology experts give their reasons why not to use an Elf on the Shelf as a disciplinary tool:

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1) It’s only a temporary fix, says Dubai-based Pooja Bhargava, who has a PhD in Child Development, “The practice of rewarding good behavior with anything other than praise is a temporary technique that results in instant gratification. You get results, but they vanish quickly. Children need to develop a strong internal moral structure, where they know what is right or wrong, not learn to behave in a certain way because of what they’re going to get from it”

2) It’s not actually very ‘fun’ at all, says Therese Sequeira, Parent Educator at The Parenting PLACE at kidsFIRST says, “If the Elves are used as visitors who explore the homes they are staying in, then that’s one thing, but if the Elf is being used as a ‘tattle tale’, then he would not be welcome in my home. How boring! It’s important for parents to encourage good behaviour in their children through spending time with them, talking to them, offering praise, having fun, having shared experiences and having an object supposedly report children’s ‘bad behaviour’ is very negative and no fun at all.”

3) It’s lazy parenting and encourages materialism, says David Kyle Johnson associate professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania. “It’s the easiest, but worst, way to get your children to behave. Children need to learn self-control and to do the right thing for its own sake. But a child who behaves because The Elf on the Shelf is watching and will tell Santa — that child is learning the exact opposite: that how they behave should be dictated by the rewards they receive. And this is not unproblematic. What happens when these children grow up and discover that in the real world, it is lying and cheating that earns the most rewards? Now, I’m not saying that The Elf on the Shelf will encourage even more corruption in the business world – but I’m also not not saying that either.”

Read more: 'How to keep the magic without lying to your kids this Christmas'

THE ALTERNATIVE: KINDNESS ELVES?

Set up in 2014 by The Imagination Tree as a kinder alternative to the Elf on the Shelf tradition, these knitted wool dolls concentrate only on the ‘carrot’ incentive side of the Elf on the Shelf and remove the ‘stick’ element all together. These elves don’t report anything back to Santa, so there’s no threat of coal in your stocking, but they instead encourage daily acts of positive, character-building kindness – anything from cooking a meal for someone to visiting an elderly neighbour or donating old toys to charity.

Kindness Elves

The idea is to teach “love, kindness and gratitude with a hope to raise kids who move away from the entitlement attitude which is creeping into our modern generation,” says the founder Anna Ranson.

There’s still the same silliness and mystery – the elves appear in a different place each morning, sometimes in funny positions, and sometimes next to an item needed for that day’s kindess activity. Notes appear alongside the elves, all focusing on positivity – either suggesting a kindess act for the day, or congratulating the child for their kindness the day before. The website is full of ideas for things that you can do with your Kindness Elves.

The Kindness Elves are now available to buy online and can be delivered to the UAE, although you better get ordering now to get them on the run-up to Christmas. However, we don’t see why you can’t use any sort of cute elfin/fairy-style doll (check out the fairy dolls at Ikea instead), or indeed why you can’t just repurpose your Elf on the Shelf to be a little less strict and a bit more kind.

Read more: 'Parents: Get a grip. It's totally fine to lie to your kids about Santa'