Parenting: Not so spooky Halloween

David Murphy says for young kids, a not so scary approach to Halloween can be a good idea.

David Murphy reports: a Penn State study shows it pays to emphasize delight over fright on Halloween.
October 12, 2011 7:32:21 AM PDT
Part of the fun of Halloween for many kids is the scary side of it, and the Murphy children have at times been no exception. My sons and daughter have dressed up as everything from Dracula to a witch, depending on their age. But there's an argument for treading lightly around the holiday's frightful aspect until you're sure your kids are ready for the thrill of goblins and spooks. has a nice article citing some local research on the topic. The Penn State University study involved a sample of six and seven-year-olds from Philadelphia and appeared to show that Halloween is potentially more unnerving for young children than some parents realize. Psychologist Cindy Dell Clark, who interviewed youngsters and their parents following three Halloweens, has concluded that the main reason kids are sometimes freaked-out is that the holiday tends to be their first significant exposure to the idea of death. Think about it. At an age when most families would not allow their children to attend a funeral, here we are catapulting our kids into a world of big teeth, bloody axes, and howling demons. Clark, quoted from an article she wrote for the anthropological journal Ethos, says, "It is striking that on Halloween, death-related themes are intended as entertainment for the very children whom adults routinely protect." Clark also says she's interviewed adults who still don't enjoy the holiday, thanks to some over-the-top Halloween frights they experienced as kids.

Ghostly Grimaces vs. Goblin Grins

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules here and each child will react differently, depending on their personal standing. Clark says a kid whose is prematurely confident, for example, may not be as bothered as, say, a child who's dealing with the recent death of a relative or pet. But the message she gives is that parents should ease their kids into this world of ghosts and goblins and perhaps err on the side of caution until they know their children are ready for a good scare.

Clark says talking with kids ahead of time about the difference between what is real and not real is a good start, and you can get to work on this a few weeks prior to the actual trick or treat experience, as mock-ups of Frankenstein and giant spiders begin sprouting on lawns. Emphasize the fun aspects of Halloween, like the candy and dressing-up. And repeat that the only creatures out there on Halloween night are their fellow kids in the neighborhood who are simply out having fun. Hold on to your youngsters hand tightly during the evening and explain to them ahead of time that they only have to go to houses that look good to them; if somebody's got creepy pumpkins out front or scary music playing, it's okay to pass. I can remember distinctly the feeling of my young child's hand squeezing tighter around mine when something didn't seem right. It's a bittersweet memory now, of course, as they've all grown into big kids who can take a scare as well as anyone. But given the above research, I'm figuring that present-day confidence probably owes partly to how I didn't force the scares on them back then.

Not So Harrowing Happenings

Another way to ease young kids into the Halloween experience is to dress them up for some decidedly non-frightening holiday events. Most schools have a Halloween parade (in full, friendly daylight). Tyler Arboretum, on Painter Road near Ridley Creek State Park in Delaware County, is one of several local establishments that plan non-threatening Halloween events aimed at young kids with a decidedly kid-friendly approach. This year's "Pumpkin Days" are this weekend (Saturday and Sunday, October 15 and 16) and feature live music, pumpkins, food, games, hayrides, and a "haunted" barn that can be easily skipped. Tyler also hosts "Halloween in the Garden" from 1pm to 5pm on Saturday, October 30, where young costumed guests can join a parade led by a wizard and enjoy owl and raptor demonstrations. Admission is required for these events. Orchards around the area, like Linvilla in Nether Providence Township, also have pumpkin patches and hayrides that are designed for delight, not fright.

There are a lot of great things about Halloween for kids, from fun with friends to free treats. But there's also the scary stuff. You can do yourself and your kids a big favor by easing them into the experience in a thoughtful way so that they can get the most out of the experience, not only now but years from now.

---David Murphy

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