If you’re reading this blog in late October, I commend you. With one of the biggest holidays of the year on the horizon, I expect that most reading will have to wait for Nov. 1, when sugar-induced highs have receded and your children are sleeping — soundly. From cowboy hats to ballet tutus, Halloween gives us opportunities to look at things from the perspective of children and see how they move from magic to science, from fantasy to reality and from fear to understanding.
A baby’s first words are magical. A random babble hits upon “mama,” turning that sound into an enchanted incantation that brings forth a warm and wonderful reaction from the person who fulfills his every need. Repetition of that sound again and again leads to the awareness that it refers only to that one person. A child’s first association is made. Cognitive development is dependent on a series of events, like this one, that turn a random act or thought into “abracadabra” and then into true understanding.
You can see this at Halloween. Three and 4-year-olds are often still very confused about what is real and what is not. They have not had enough experience with masks and face paint and costumes to know that our identities are permanent. Many of them don’t yet understand how a friend or sibling can be beneath that ferocious tiger who simply put on a striped suit and face paint.
Sometimes we take for granted that children have more mature understandings than they do. Or we think we could have somehow prevented an unfounded fear. But fears are normal, and they can be very real and very resistant to logical explanation. Rather than reasoning with fearful children, we can allay fears by giving the child some control. We can help them move from fantasy to reality by letting them hold the magic wand themselves. If children watch a sibling put on a costume and take it off again, if they can be the one who opens and closes the bathtub drain and turns the vacuum cleaner on and off, they will be able to gradually move from fear to “abracadabra” and then to a better understanding of the limits of a costume, a drain and a vacuum.
Fears, even at Halloween, are a healthy survival reaction. It’s only with enough experience with costumes and dressing up that children begin to better understand the degree of control they can have and the probability of true danger behind that mask. Learning to handle fear in a healthy and self-affirming way is a critical developmental step. So when we find ways to give children a degree of control, when we engage in age-appropriate dialogue that gives them labels, when we are calm, encouraging and knowledgeable, we’ll see fears subside, coping strategies emerge and emotional competence develop.
And then, these same fearful children will eagerly give treats to goblins and hold the hand of a mummy.