Halloween and Young Children: What's TOO scary?

Reader Fran in Massachusetts wrote recently, asking an interesting question about her 3-year-old son, who has an unusual request for a Halloween costume. He wants to be Cruella de Vil this year.

Fran's not worried about the gender thing; she knows that it's perfectly fine for a 3-year-old boy to dress up in a female costume. She lives in a progressive neighborhood, and so her neighbors aren't likely to make a thing out of a little boy in a Cruella outfit. And she knows that, developmentally, it's really common for 3-year-olds to have fun dressing up in opposite-sex costumes, and that it means nothing about the future development of sexual identity. (In fact, just about every 3-year-old boy I've known wants to have his nails painted, often much to the dismay of his Daddy.)

But Fran's question has to do with the downright scary nature of the Cruella character. After all, she kidnaps puppies for their fur. She offers to drown newborn animals. There are all sorts of hellish, devilish references in her story. But Fran's son insists on dressing up as Cruella. What's a Mom to do?

This isn't a simple issue. But you wouldn't know it by scanning the popular parenting media, where we're offered suggestions about trick-or-treating safety, or handy-dandy costume and recipe tips. What about the fact that Halloween is meant to scare the daylights out of our children? Aren't we supposed to be protecting them from frightening movies and TV news during the rest of the year? How come it's now OK to send them to a stranger's door to take candy from a guy wearing a Scream mask? And what about all the ghouls and goblins coming to our door? Isn't the home supposed to be a safe place?

As a reaction, some parents take the approach followed by our local Waldorf school, which does a "Night of Delights" kind of party, and doesn't allow traditionally scary costumes. Fairies and dragons are fine; Cruella is not invited. Yet many kids bristle at the restrictions placed on this kind of celebration. Kids like Fran's son WANT the scary stuff. They seem to CRAVE it. So what's the best way to handle it with YOUR kids? First, KNOW YOUR KIDS Each child is different. Fran's son loves the scary stuff; many do. There's nothing wrong with that; it's his way of learning to understand scary and mean things in life. Sometimes, acting out bad things is a way of gaining mastery over them. If I can act it out, I can control it, and then it won't hurt me. But other kids are truly frightened by scary characters and scenes. Those kids need a more gentle introduction to things that go bump in the night. Using child's language, explain how this night is different...and fun Tell your 2, 3, or 4-year-old how people have fun dressing up in costumes. And on this night...just this night...we get treats at other people's houses. And it's all for pretend, just like we do when we pretend at home. Practice with simple masks -- in front of a mirror, show him how it's still him underneath the mask. Practice what will happen when the kids ring the doorbell and yell "Trick Or Treat!". Enlist his help in handing out candy. And dress up yourself, in just a simple costume, to show that the adults are in on the fun, too...and will still protect him and make sure he's safe. Follow your child's lead Be prepared for the lead-up to Halloween to be at least as exciting -- if not more exciting -- than the actual night of the holiday. Many young children are thrilled with decorating and preparing costumes and treats in the days prior to October 31. But Halloween night can feel overwhelming; after all it IS nighttime, which in and of itself is a scary time for kids. And the disruption and weirdness of having costumed strangers come to the door and roaming around outside can be just too much. If your little Fairy wants to visit one or two houses for trick-or-treating, or even forget about it altogether, be prepared to change your plans as needed. Make alternative arrangements for older kids Your older children have more advanced coping mechanisms in place. They understand that the death themes of the holiday are pretend. They can use the frightening images to learn to master their own fears. And they can enjoy the unusual opportunity of breaking the rules, if just for one night. So arrange with friends to have the brave kids go out with one family, and the scaredy-cats stay home with another. Parents can split up for the night too; in our house, Dad takes the big kids out for trick-or-treating, while our 2-year-old and I stay home to dole out candy. Last year, he was frightened about the kids coming to the door in their costumes. I had them tell us their names and show under their masks before having TT give them their candy. Eventually, he got into the swing of it; then at 8 pm, I turned out the porch light and devoted the rest of the evening to giving him his usual bath/bedtime routine, for reassurance.

Will your young kids dress up for Halloween this year?