I’M the first to admit I’m somewhat out of the loop when it comes to young people so it was quite interesting to step into a world I hadn’t previously known anything about.

Let me explain. Over the weekend I was waiting to make a small donation to a foodbank trolley. I was behind a family and couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. Apparently, the children had been tasked with taking items to the foodbank by their ‘Elf on the Shelf’.

Now either you are aware of what the Elf on the Shelf is all about or you’re not. I suppose it all depends if you have children (or grandchildren) of the right age.

I clearly fall into the category of not having a clue what they were talking about so when I got home I did an internet search.

And this is what I found. The Elf on the Shelf is a toy elf who appears in the homes of young children around now. You won’t be surprised to hear it originated in America so he makes his first appearance at Thanksgiving.

Apparently, it has become a ‘tradition’ and has spawned an entire industry. And how old is this tradition, you may ask? Does it stem from some Scandinavian folktale? Is it a character that has made its way from the Russian steppes over eons?

Well no. The first sighting of the Elf on the Shelf came in a self-published book. Here’s what the fount of all knowledge Wikipedia has to say: “It was written in 2004 by Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell. Aebersold’s other daughter, Christa Pitts, was recruited by the family to share her expertise in sales and marketing. Together, the trio devoted the next three years promoting their book and attending book signings and trade shows.”

Well done them, all their hard work seems to have paid off. It’s the soft toy equivalent of having a Christmas single, the gift that keeps on giving...royalties.

The premise is that the Santa’s ‘scout elves’ hide in people’s homes and spy on the family. Once everyone goes to bed, the elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Father Christmas whether the children have been naughty or nice. Before the family wakes up each morning, the scout elf flies back from the North Pole and hides in a new spot each day, essentially playing a game of hide and seek with the family.

But things seem to have taken a little twist once the concept met the reality of people. Apparently, some parents have started making their elves mischievous, doing naughty (but harmless) things while the children are asleep. Unravelling toilet rolls seems to be a particular favourite.

I’m suffering a little cognitive dissonance here. In the world of a small child, they believe the elf is watching their every move and reporting to Father Christmas. The pressure is then constantly on the child to be ‘good’. But at the same time they are being exhorted to behave themselves by this creature from the North Pole, the elf is behaving in exactly the opposite way.

What kind of cruel joke is that to play on children?

I am more heartened by some parents, such as the family making the foodbank donation, who get their elves to do ‘nice’ things like asking the children to be kind to each other or smile more.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does. Part with around £4.50 and you can buy your very own Elf dummy CCTV cameras – complete with flashing LED lights – to really make your children think they are under constant surveillance.

Some parents really do need to have a word with themselves.

As one of my Twitter followers put it: “Elf on the Shelf is coercive control wrapped in a bow. It’s only acceptable to use the threat of consequences very sparingly with young children, but never as a pervasive presence and a cheesy grin. It’s how people used to threaten. Bin it.”