Ask a Cool Dad: Do I Have to Get My Kid an Elf on the Shelf?

Spoiler alert: No, you do not.

Cool Dad Elf on the Shelf
Where it belongs.

This is Ask a Cool Dad, in which our resident dad who is also cool fields questions from readers about how they, too, can navigate the difficulties of parenthood without looking like a square. Have parenting questions of your own? Send them to

Dear Cool Dad,

My husband and I have a four-year-old son, and he’s recently started asking us why other kids he knows have an Elf on the Shelf and he doesn’t. We didn’t realize this would be such a big deal, but it’s making him really upset — he keeps asking us if we think it’s because he hasn’t been “good” enough. Neither my husband nor I grew up with one of these things, obviously, so we never really considered adding it to our Christmas traditions. Should we feel bad about this? Should we just give in and get one? — A Guilt-Ridden Mom

No. Fuck that shit. Elf on the Shelf is a scourge on all that is good and pure about Christmas, and you should in no way feel guilty about not indulging in it. In fact, you should take great pride in it.

A few years ago, my now-nine-year-old daughter approached my wife and I with the exact same question: Why am I the only one who doesn’t have an Elf on the Shelf? And do you know what I wanted to say to her? I wanted to say that we don’t have an Elf on the Shelf because Mommy and Daddy didn’t feel like going to Target or Bed Bath & Beyond or whatever and coughing up $30 for the trouble of having to move the stupid thing to a new place every night and be forced into one more lie we’d have to tell in hopes that it would convince her not to act like an asshole all the time.

One thing I did not foresee before becoming a father is the degree to which even lying about Santa would feel kind of shitty. It’s a bit manipulative and ultimately dishonest, even if it’s all in good fun and in the spirit of the season. I’m dreading the day I have to confirm for my kids that it’s all made up; I think there are some nice lessons to be taken from all of it, but still, it kinda feels like the beginning of the end, doesn’t it? Like, the very top of a slippery, slippery slope to realizing that maybe everything everywhere is utter bullshit.

But there’s one very specific reason I’m OK perpetuating the Santa myth and not this Elf on the Shelf nonsense: the magic of Christmas should not cost money. Santa Claus is an idea in which anyone can choose to believe; there’s no $30 barrier to entry — on top of buying the actual presents — inherent in thinking someone’s going to sneak down your chimney and eat a bunch of cookies after giving you a bunch of dope toys. And, sure, I realize it can seem a bit trite at this point to complain about the commodification of Christmas, but this isn’t that, exactly. It’s commodification of the magic of Christmas, and I simply cannot abide by that.

I’m not sure it was my greatest moment as a Cool Dad, but when my daughter started asking me about this, like, really applying the full-court press, I did eventually — as calmly as possible — explain to her that the Elf on the Shelf is not real, that her friends’ parents went to a store and bought it, then moved it to a new spot every night. I told her that it’s all just for fun, and that it’s a tradition a lot of families participate in, but one that ours does not. I also told her that if she ever told anyone in her class what I’d told her, I’d be super pissed. Her only follow-up? “But Santa’s real, right?”

“Huh? Of course he is,” I said.

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