When I was around 12 years old growing up in the Midwest, I told my mom that when I grew up I was going to move to a place where everyone was different from one another, so that no one would feel different. I started planning to move to a city before I even had my driver’s license. I dreamed of walking down busy streets and hearing a hodge-podge of different languages, surrounded by people wearing eclectic clothes, who didn’t feel constrained to think or talk or live within a box of tightly packaged social norms in an attempt to fit in with those around them.
Perhaps it was this early eagerness to be surrounded by difference that sparked my love for Halloween. I love the annual ritual of trying on personalities other than my own, and watching others let their freak flags fly. What an amazing holiday, one that gives us license to throw aside our preconceived notions of who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to act, and embrace the unexpected, unconventional sides of ourselves we so rarely get to display publically.
Becoming a mom has kicked my love for Halloween up approximately 1,000 notches (True confession: I started planning my son’s first costume when I was still pregnant). There’s something magical about watching him revel in the fun of fall traditions—the pumpkins and the cider and the hay rides and the apple picking. Seeing the world through my son’s eyes reminds me that life really is filled with wonder and beauty, even among the tragedy and political vitriol that seem overwhelming at times.
My very favorite Halloween tradition from when I was little is still a few years on the horizon for my toddler. For years and years growing up, my mom, sister and I would pile into our station wagon in mid-September and hit the fabric store. We’d spend an evening pouring over dozens of patterns, discussing and debating the merits of being a dalmatian or a princess or a mouse or Laura Ingalls Wilder. After hunting down the perfect fabric and trim, we’d head home and mom would set up a war room filled with fabric scraps, half-empty bobbins and yards of beads and ribbon. My sister and I would spend the next six weeks breathing down our poor mother’s neck while she painstakingly wrestled fabric until it transformed into our selected personas.
Maria Montessori said play is the work of the child; play and pretending are the ways our children test drive the character traits that will form the bedrock of their adult personalities. Halloween is the Super Bowl of pretending. This holiday helps remove the barriers of decorum and social norms that constrain us from embracing the kooky and weird parts of ourselves that we do our best to tamp down the other 11 months of the year.
I write a letter to my son in a journal marking each milestone—a practice I started the last months of my pregnancy. I share with him my thoughts on life and love, on the ways I hope he comes to embrace all of the unique, marvelous things that make him who he is. When he started preschool this fall, I wrote him a letter explaining that in the very near future grown-ups are going to start asking ‘what’ he wants to be when he grows up. All too soon, the world will start trying to convince him that what he does equals who he is. But who he is—who we all are—is not defined by the things we do for money, the things we do for validation. Ideally, asking ourselves what we want to be should challenge us to think about the deepest parts of ourselves. When I grow up (yep, still waiting for that to happen), I want to be generous, kind, patient, brave and honest. When I grow up, I want to be someone who looks past the trappings of careers to see the authentic parts of others. I want to be someone who appreciates people for who they are, not what they do.
Perhaps it’s a bit much to consider Halloween as a proving ground for considering these big questions. But I believe pushing my son, early and often, to think critically about the kind of person he is becoming is my most important job as a parent. Yes, the daily minutiae of practicing sharing and good manners and eating vegetables will no doubt prove useful later in life. But these things pale in comparison with the important lessons that come from challenging our children to let their imaginations guide the adventure of growing up. Encouraging this self-reflection needs to become a habit, something we do so frequently that checking our emotional barometer becomes routine. Halloween is an opportunity to show our children that reflecting on who we are is something fun—a way to reconsider if we are living the life we want to live, rather than the life we fall into when we simply bob along while slogging through emails and laundry and lunch packing.
So what do you want to be this year for Halloween? Do you want to be someone who puts on a fun costume for a night and then packs away your imagination until next year? Or do you want to be someone who embraces the quirky parts of yourself and, in so doing, models to your children how to embrace all the wonderful weirdness that makes each of us special?
Wow! That’s what I want to be for Halloween, too.
Elizabeth Mount is executive director at the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.