Elf ornament in a Christmas tree

Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hey, welcome back to Beyond the Session segment of Securely Attached podcast. I’m Dr. Sarah Bren. Today I have with me my lovely, lovely, dear friends Dr. Emily Upshur and Dr. Rebecca Hershberg. And I’m excited to get into this question today. It’s a little holiday themed, but this mom sent in a question on the website. And by the way, if you want to send in your own question for us to answer, just go to dr sarah bren.com/question and you could fill out a form there and we will answer your question on the podcast. Anyway, this mom asked, what are your thoughts on Elf on the Shelf? The idea that my daughter has to be good because someone is watching at all times isn’t the message I’m trying to send, but all of her friends have been talking about their elf arriving and she’s begging me to get one too. Is there any harm in this?


So while I love that respectful parenting has made it so mainstream, I also, I feel like there can be a lot of misconceptions about what are the parameters of respectful parenting, and sometimes it can instill a lot of fear and trepidation in parents.

Dr. Rebecca (01:55):

Wait, while you are thrilled that respectful parenting has made what so mainstream? Elf on the Shelf?

Dr. Sarah (02:02):

No, that Respectful parenting itself has made it to this mainstream level of awareness. People are actually considering, Hey, when I do this thing that everyone does, what’s the impact does it have on my relationship with my kid? That’s amazing. It’s amazing that we’re thinking that way. And it could be taken to the extreme on the other end of the spectrum of like, okay, I have to filter every single thing I do as a parent through this lens of like, is this going to damage my relationship with my child if I do this thing? And I think that’s where it goes a little haywire for a parents. There’s a lot of fear of messing up. It’s very fragile. This respectful relationship that we’re building with our kid is very fragile and one step in the wrong direction, you’re going to shatter it. And I think that is totally a big misconception about respectful parenting. And so I’m curious, one, there’s two layers to this question. One is just nuts and bolts. Can I do Elf on a shelf and still be respectful parent, whatever, prioritize my relationship with my kid and foster intrinsic motivation to do things, whatever. But then I think a bigger question is how much pressure are we putting on ourselves and do we need to be putting this much pressure on ourselves in parenting? So just a little question, nothing big.

Dr. Emily (03:28):

I mean, I think when you said I’m glad that respectful parenting has made it this mainstream, I would revise that for my view personally to be more like, I think intentional parenting is more mainstream, and I feel like that’s a little bit different, right? Because with anything, I don’t want any parent dogmatically following any genre and any given way without their own thought, their own attunement to their kid and their own attunement to their own values. So I would say the answer is can this person say, what do I like out of this, what I not like out of this tradition and how can I make it more mine? I love the idea of magic in childhood, and I personally don’t love the idea of lying to our children and saying, so there’s a balance of that. Is there a way you can make it your own?


Can you do Elf on the Shelf with it being transparently like Mommy and Daddy move the elf every night and we have a fun adventure And in the morning you get to see what it’s about, which is cool and fun and exciting too. There’s a little bit of more transparency and less, I think again, there’s just no single way. I think it’s more about figuring out what fits. And as a card and fast answer to this listener, you’re not going to do, no one thing you’re going to do is going to blow everything up. So I think that’s obviously my hard and fast answer, but I think my bigger picture answer is how can you figure out how you intentionally want to parent and sort of meld some of these things together for a better result?

Dr. Sarah (05:10):

Yeah, no, that makes so much sense.

Dr. Rebecca (05:11):

Do you intentionally want a parent and how you intentionally want to celebrate the holidays? And obviously those two things are a Venn diagram, but first of all I should say I’m Jewish, so we don’t do all this on the telephone though, Sarah, you recently told me that. What did you say? Mench on the Bench.

Dr. Sarah (05:29):

There’s a version of it for everybody, I feel like.

Dr. Rebecca (05:32):

Well, good first response and I sometimes get a little casual about this stuff. I think in part because I think we can all get a little earnest and precious, but the question of should I do Elf on the Shelf? Like sure, knock yourself out.


At a certain point. I just think we have to take it all a little bit less seriously. And I say that as someone who’s made her career out of intentional parenting and believe in it wholeheartedly. And I do truly and genuinely as anyone who follows me on Instagram knows think we can change the world through how we parent. So it’s not something I think lightly in the big picture, but with questions like this, I just think, and this speaks to what Emily was saying, we just were losing sight of the forest for the trees. It’s about also having fun as parents and delighting in our kids and delighting in holiday rituals and traditions. And if this is one that again, that you don’t take too seriously, and as far as my understanding, kids mostly love waking up and seeing where it is and creative. Oh look, the L eight, all the spaghetti that’s sort of fun and goofy and great. Are there people using it as a behavior modification tool? Yes. Is that my recommendation? No. Do I think those are horrible parents making a terrible misstep? No. Depending on context, I think we all have to give ourselves and each other a little bit more grace around some of these more minor things.

Dr. Sarah (07:06):

Yeah, I think that’s so well said. Both of you. Honestly, I think this idea that we can make something our own and can use it how we want that fits into our family and how we want to celebrate the holidays, there’s just so many ways that you can do it, including integrating Elf on the shelf or not. If it’s something you don’t want to do, being able to say, you know what, just because everybody else is doing it just doesn’t mean that we’re going to do it. And look, let’s come up with our own tradition. I think my point is no matter what path you take, there’s a way to take it that honors what you’re trying to do. And I like this term intentional parenting, but I almost feel like these words that we put are so meaningless at this point. Responsive parenting, respectful parenting, gentle parenting, intentional parenting response.


These are just words that we’ve been using to try to describe, it’s like semantics, right? Really what we’re talking about is this sort of shift in moving out of a more behaviorism based way of parenting, which is what was, I think historically for even just one generation back, but many before that was the norm for parenting. People didn’t really know a different way. And now we understand a lot more about just the way that relationships inform child development and brain development and how all that has shifted our understanding of how important the relationship is in parenting and in raising children to be healthy adults like Rebecca. To your point, we can change the world if we understand some of these things and make some sort of intentional choices with the way that we parent. But I think that whatever we want to call it, that doesn’t, I don’t think it matters nearly as much as what you guys are saying, which is like how do you just ask yourself these questions? How do we think about our child’s experience and have that information factor into our decision to do something? Whereas I think before it was much more my child needs to behave in a certain way, how do I get them there? And I think that’s shifted in my opinion.

Dr. Rebecca (09:37):

Yeah, I agree. I think semantics become important. I’m going to nitpick a tiny bit because you said we’re moving away from behaviorism, and I think that’s true. I would say we are still hopefully holding onto some really good and effective behavioral tools. And I know that we’ve gone into that in other episodes, and you can put them in the notes if you want, but we have learned more about the nervous system. We have learned more about the vaso vagal system, we’ve learned about relational science and all of that has really, I think, informed our parenting. And it doesn’t mean we have to be so hardcore rejecting of other things that came before certain things. Yes, corporal punishment. I’m delighted that at least in many circles seems to have gone by the wayside.


I mean, whatever. You may edit this out. I feel like semantics do become very important when people who aren’t necessarily well-trained in what some of these words mean, do go down a dogmatic path and start speaking about science without the scientific background or understanding or research involved. And so on the one hand, I’m tempted to say it’s all about semantics. It doesn’t really matter what we’re talking about as being more intentional, respectful, loving, tuned in. Great. Also, semantics does matter when you look at these sound bites and clips and whatnot on social media with people using terms wrong and making sweeping statements. And I think we have to hold both of those things at the same time.

Dr. Emily (11:22):

And I think the other piece that we’re not talking about or we haven’t yet totally touched upon is how as a parent, do you go against the grain sometimes, right? Or how do you tolerate that if you decide not to do some of these more mainstream traditions like off on a shelf, the blow back that your child, the reaction that your child might have, the so really, how do we build our tolerance to holding our values in the face of something that might not match with how you decide to proceed? So I think there’s that piece too, which is when your child’s like, but why can’t we do bench on the bench that we figure out a way to hold that disappointment without sort of caving into something that isn’t fully in our intention or belief system.

Dr. Sarah (12:17):

And I think Rebecca, your point about not, I think when we reduce things down to sound bites, it can get super, super confusing for parents, which I think is kind of where perhaps this question even comes from this listener’s question of, am I allowed to do this? Am I allowed to? Who is saying you’re not allowed to? And where is that coming from? And I think on both ends of the parents’ support spectrum is messaging that’s really dogmatic, whether you’re extremely about, and here’s where I say semantics don’t exactly matter because we’re all kind of talking about the same thing when we say gentle parenting, responsive parenting, respectful parenting, all those things on that kind of end of the spectrum in extreme can be really dogmatic and tell parents messaging around if you do this thing, you’re going to destroy your child’s intrinsic motivation. Or if you do this thing, you’re going to destroy their sense of safety with you.


Right? It’s very intense and I think that is really moving very far away from accurate what we understand. I think it’s damaging to parents in a lot of ways and it really, really freaks them out and puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them. But then on the other end of that spectrum, and here’s where I would agree with you, that semantics really does matter. When we talk about this sort of strict behavior-based models where we’re only looking at behavior and not looking at the bigger context, the relationship, the regulation, all that stuff, then I think we can also see a lot of dogma. And it also really freaks parents out. So it’s like, I guess my goal with all of these podcast episodes in general, and I think we’re in a lot of alignment on this, I know both of your work so well, is how do we help parents hold space in this middle ground of you can make choices and you can be intentional with the choices you make and nothing is that fragile. And you can try something and if it doesn’t work, you can switch it out, you can play with it, you can break the rules, you can do things that work for you and your family and you can be sort of nimble and flexible and you don’t have to follow. But I just think there’s so much pressure coming at parents from both of these sort of extreme ends all the time.

Dr. Emily (14:48):

Yeah, I agree. Well, I think it goes back to any singular of these choices isn’t going to blow up the whole ship. I think it’s like putting this into perspective too. You can choose to do elf on the shelf and still garner intrinsic motivation in your child in other ways. It’s not an all or nothing system. And I think that’s really the message is how can we create an algorithm that works for our family or for our parenting that isn’t subscribed just to one thing or other, or isn’t so dependent. Each choice has as much weight as we put on it.

Dr. Sarah (15:31):

Yeah. How do we lighten things up? And I think, Rebecca, you touched on this, but it could be playful. We can just do things because they’re fun. Not everything has to be so heavy and sometimes it’s just an elf on a shelf.

Dr. Rebecca (15:47):

I love that.

Dr. Emily (15:48):

Or, a Mench on the Bench.

Dr. Sarah (15:54):

So I hope everyone has a great holiday and I hope that you give yourself some real grace this holiday. If you want to have an elf on the shelf, go nuts. Enjoy. If you are like, heck no, I do not want to have a Pinterest perfect curated holiday for my kid because that’s just too much work. Also, you don’t have to do it for that reason. Don’t worry about intrinsic motivation and behavior modification and Santa getting a message that you weren’t well behaved. You also just don’t have to do it because that’s a lot of work. That’s why I don’t do it or wouldn’t want to do it, but that’s totally different reasons. Gosh, the holidays, they’re loaded. I hope you all have a really easy breezy holiday season and enjoy yourself and be playful.

Dr. Rebecca (16:41):

That might be setting the bar a little high.

Dr. Emily (16:44):

Really high.

Dr. Sarah (16:44):

Oh yeah.

Dr. Emily (16:44):

I’m going to go with be playful.

Dr. Rebecca (16:46):

Easy, breezy holiday season? When was the last time I had one of those?

Dr. Sarah (16:49):

Never. It’s wishful. I wish for this to be the case. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I wish for that.

Dr. Emily (16:57):

Easy breezy moment.

Dr. Rebecca (16:58):

Okay, hold that as a fantasy. I hope there are perhaps some easy breezing moments during your holiday.

Dr. Sarah (17:05):

That’s much more measured. Thank you, Rebecca. Talk to you soon.

Dr. Emily (17:13):


Dr. Rebecca (17:13):

Bye everyone.

Dr. Sarah (17:16):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

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153. BTS: Does using Elf on the Shelf undermine my respectful parenting philosophy?