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Scare the Kid Out of You: Is Halloween Age Appropriate For Young Children

Scare the Kid Out of You: Is Halloween Age Appropriate For Young Children

A good friend and fellow parent provided for me a cautionary tale about Halloween. His son (then a very excitable three-year old) expressed nothing but anticipation and enthusiasm leading up to Halloween. For weeks he talked about dressing up, trick-or-treating, and seeing all the other boys and girls in costume. To hear my friend explain it, his kid was completely out of his mind with expectation that dominated every conversation and every activity leading up to All Hallows Eve.

Once the holiday actually arrived, this eager toddler faithfully wore his costume all day long, and helped his parents fill the candy bowls and set out the jack-o-lantern for the expected trick-or-treaters. The sun set, and then there was the predicted ring of the doorbell. My friend accompanied his son to the door to hand out some candy to the costumed child on the other side. Door opens, and standing on the other side was an oafish teenaged boy, half zombie, and half axe-murderer victim gazing down with an open bag in hand. The toddler, who up until this point had shown nothing but unbounded enthusiasm for the concept of Halloween, was frightened beyond belief and retreated to the back of the house and refused to come out of his room for the rest of the evening. Actually, from that point on (for at least a few months) he refused to go anywhere near the door if the doorbell chimed.

Now while my friend took every precautionary step to explain, and even demonstrate, to his child the indulgence in fantasy, masquerade and fear that occurs on Halloween, his child’s perceived understanding was not quite enough to override the visceral shock and fear of the holiday’s images and iconography. Many adults would assume that children are generally unable to differentiate real from pretend, and that is why you have the resulting fear factor with children diving under beds and into their parents arms when they spot a costumed monster or see a sheeted ghost crossing their lawn. However, most children (even at a fairly young developmental stage) have the ability to distinguish, say, a real apple from a plastic apple, or a real crocodile from a wooden crocodile toy without fail. But place a child in a situation where there is insecurity or emotions are running high (for instance a doorstep visit from a bleeding zombie) and their heightened emotional state takes over. This too is the case for most adults, as is evidenced by one of the first screenings of the silent film “The Great Train Robbery” in the late nineteenth century. Moviegoers, who had little or no context for the moving image, were sent running from the theater and diving under their seats when they viewed a train barreling toward them and a gun pointed in their direction. In the context of being in a darkened theater and under the influence of an unfamiliar and new form of media, even adults are prone to cowering and taking flight.

Many child psychologist and child development experts contend that, while the iconography of Halloween may appeal to some children, the collective fantasy and ritual involved are way too intense for most children, even those with a high fear threshold. Children will often become confused about the difference between reality, and what is sometimes a rather frightening and seductive fantasy, and be enveloped in fear and panic.

So do you shield your children from anything that provokes fear or fright? Personally, I am convinced that engagement with fear (whether it is foisted upon you or you electively seek it out) is a very natural human need. There is a very particular excitement and emotion that comes from being afraid that most people yearn for. It simultaneously upsets us and then grounds us in our reality. The trick is keeping yourself securely positioned in reality, while flirting with the whirlwind dangers of horror and fright. For most adults, this is doable, but not so much for children.

As guardians and parents, we obviously need to be sensitive and tend to our children’s fears year round. Halloween presents a particularly difficult challenge for everyone involved. Do we just thrust our children into the spectacle that is Halloween and faithfully assure them that they are safe and sound? Or do we shield them from adversity and panic-inducing images until they are old enough to handle it on their own?

I would love to hear from parents, guardians, and anyone who has been scared half-to-death on what you think about the holiday and its affect on children.

Read more: Children, Family, Halloween, Holidays & Gifts, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

37 comments

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4:25AM PDT on Oct 11, 2012

When our son was small, we took him to the mall for Halloween. He wasn't scared and if was safer - no candy to be afraid of and it was lit up so he could see!!
Now he is 27, and he is the one who puts on the scary mask and dresses freaky for parties!

5:26AM PDT on Oct 8, 2010

My 2 year old cousin came to stay with us last halloween, and had never really experienced any of it before but he took to it really well and loved it. I think the reason he enjoyed it rather than getting scared is that first, some of the family got dressed up too so he knew there were normal people underneath the costumes, and second, rather than keeping him in and having older kids come to the door dressed up we took him out trick or treating instead (so he could see lots of other small kids dressed up, and it wasnt like random unexpected monsters coming to the door to get him! both of which I'm assuming made it much more comfortable.) We also had him help decorate blank masks and that might've helped, I'm not sure. It was fun for him so I dont suppose it matters if it helped.
I'd say either go out, in a comfortale sized group, so they can see kids their age dressed up too, rather than bigger (so probably scarier) kids just showing up at your house and shocking them; or as someone already said, have a party at your own house because I guess it eliminates the shock element if everybodys already in the room (but I'd recommend having some other smaller kids around- I wouldnt like to be tiny and stuck in a room with nobody but tons of huge looming monsters...)

3:45PM PDT on Sep 28, 2010

It really is up to the parent to prepare the child beforehand so that they know what to expect, especially for really small children. Before you go trick or treating with them, you might explain what Halloween is and how people will be wearing all kinds of scary costumes, but that it is all "make believe" Even have them seeing you get dressed up in a scary costume, so that they know it's you underneath. If they get scared while trick or treating? Well, your job is to comfort them and alleviate their fears. Halloween is a fact and children do get scared, I mean I've seen them cry over seeing the Easter rabbit for heavens sake!....It's life and they get over it? As for TV shows or movies, well that's a no-brainer. You're the parent so it's your responsibility alone to police what your children watch and no-one else's. Children are far too impressionable and should not be watching gory flicks.

11:38AM PDT on Sep 7, 2010

I've accidentally scared a couple of kids on Halloween (my vampire fangs fell out of my mouth while I was talking) but the kid showed no qualms about coming back to my house later.
If a kid is nervous of me I just give candy to their parents or siblings.
Funny, though, I've been scared at a haunted house, but I never was scared of a fellow trick or treater or a person giving out candy.
I think Halloween is basically what you make it. The incident with the toddler probably could have been avoided by looking out the window or something first, before letting the boy answer the door.

11:04PM PST on Dec 30, 2009

7. "Purple People Eater"

Kids get a kick out of singing this classic hit by Sheb Wooley. Let them be creative and design their own Purple People Eaters or create masks to become Purple People Eaters! Find this song on many Halloween compilation CDs.
psp akku

8:23AM PST on Nov 3, 2009

Young kids can be afraid of anything that is different or unfamiliar as anyone who's had a child frightened by Santa knows. Fear varies from child to child and also depends a lot on parental influence. If your child is afraid of something try making it more familiar but don't force it on them. Most kids outgrow their fears and eventually most kids love Halloween. I loved it as a child as did all four of my kids, and now my three granddaughters, ages 3,5 and 10, enjoy it.
Personally I don't find anything scary about trick or treating; be a parent and go with your kids, go to homes with the lights on and do a quick inspection of the candy when you get home. Halloween is one holiday that even adult kids like myself never outgrow. I still dress up at work every year, as do several of my coworkers.

11:41AM PDT on Oct 31, 2009

We let our kids go trick-or-treating, but we don't give out candy ourselves simply because my husband is usually working that night, and it's hard to give out candy when I'm taking the kids out myself! And like so many other parents here, I draw the line at anything gory or especially those costumes that make little girls look like sluts! Fortunately, my kids have no problem with suggestions for costumes that I make. For instance, my 7-year-old dressed up as a bunch of grapes again, and that costume was a HIT! All it took was her wearing green clothes, a pack of purple balloons, some string to rig the balloons into a harness of sorts around her body, and ten minutes of me hyperventilating to get them blown up and tied on. My 2-year-old wore a ladybug costume that was passed down from her big sister (and being small for her age, this year was her second wearing it!).

We're also Wiccans, so for us the holiday has a more sacred meaning. For us, the holiday is known as Samhain and celebrates the final harvest of the season, honoring our ancestors, and saying goodbye to those who have crossed over during the past year. Since our town has trick-or-treat on the last Thursday before Halloween, it works out great for us because we can spend that day focusing on our religious traditions and not trying to juggle religious and secular aspects and still get them to bed on time on a school night!

8:42PM PDT on Oct 30, 2009

I thank the people who have commented, but my point is allowing children to go house to house and accept things from strangers, which is what i spent alot of my time teaching my girls not to do. The celebration is another thing which is totally up to the parent who knows what their child can handle.
anyhow it's not my cup of tea...

3:39PM PDT on Oct 30, 2009

kids are so damn guarded these days.
Is halloween appropriate for young kids?...
... it depends on the kid.
When I was a little trick-or-treater, some costumes and houses scared the crap outta me while my younger brother would delight in it, but I still enjoyed most of it which is why my parents let me do it.
Its situations like this that separate the good parents from the bad ones because only a parent can know if their child is both prepped and ready to handle new scenarios. Most kids are gonna have a lot more to worry about than rubber masks and fake blood one night per year, and those few that won't should consider themselves lucky.
And please don't single out Halloween, its already so misunderstood. I mean, how many times do you see some kid scream and burst into tears when they meet "Santa" at the mall or "Mickey Mouse" at Disneyland??
Negative experiences are just a part of life.

12:23AM PDT on Oct 30, 2009

I think a good way to prepare young kids for potentially scary costumes/images is to literally dress up like a killer zombie (or etc.) with them. I think (most) kids can recognize their parents through make-up anyway, but the process of having your kid smear on the make-up and watch you put in the bad teeth, etc., helps them understand it's just make-up/make-believe. That's my 'personal empirical study', at least (worked for me!).

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