Scary clowns on every corner are dominating the tabloid press but they are thankfully the least of our toddler’s worries as the season of the witch looms out of the autumn gloom.
This year is the first time Little B has been old enough to take any notice of Halloween and as we start to deal with his first fears I found myself wondering whether scaring the crap out of our children (sometimes literally) once a year is really such a nice tradition?
I started thinking about this after a moment of toddler terror at bedtime.
“Daddy. I don’t like the spiiiideeer.”
No I hadn’t made Little B watch Arachnaphobia. We were reading Incy Wincy Spider. You know him, the eight legged Indiana Jones of nursery rhyme land and his calamitous waterspout adventure. This made the ‘not liking the spider’ a bit awkward, what with him being the doomed hero of the story.
“Err. Ok. But he’s a nice spider.”
I was pretty confident I could turn this episode around, especially as we were looking at a multicoloured cartoon spider wearing a straw boater.
“I don’t liiiike him daddy.”
And down came the rain of tears. And that was the end of poor Incy Wincy’s story.
Later that week at bedtime we were reading a beautiful new book called Tree that is all about, yep you guessed it, a tree as the seasons change. It is an amazing illustrated experience; the colours of the leaves, the animals coming and going and building their homes.
Unfortunately my sharp eyed two year old spotted a problem.
“Daddy the spider, the spiiiiideeeer!”
“There’s no spider in this book…”
“There. THERE! I don’t liiiike him!”
And lo there was the bloody spider, building his web in the corner of the tree. I hadn’t even noticed it among the cute fox cubs and squirrels and birds.
So it has begun.
The Age of Fears.
I knew this day would come. The day he would change from being a fearless infant running headlong into danger without a care in the world. Thankfully I know where this fear comes from. This September a spider (allegedly) bit Little B.
Now, I don’t think this actually happened. Not because I think he’s lying. I think a wasp stung him, but he didn’t know the right word and there was a lump like a sting on his finger.
Regardless of the true culprit the spider fear stuck and became associated with the correct animal and his lattice-work home.
What has this got to do with Halloween? Good question.
You see, really big spiders and webs have been appearing on the windows of houses and gates in our neighbourhood and even in my local sandwich shop!
So I reckoned by the weekend there would probably be spiders all over the street right outside our house, lurking, dangling in their sticky tangling, biting, spindly, blackness; ready to scare Little B.
Here’s a confession that doesn’t make you very popular these days. I don’t like Halloween. Not because I’m scared. Thankfully I’ve got over my childhood fears of the dark and ghosts. And I actually enjoy reading old-fashioned ghost stories.
No, I think it’s more that Halloween is so in your face now. You can’t choose whether or not to expose your children to it even if you think they are too young or going to be too scared by it. And I think some of the dressing up has got out of hand; the costumes on sale now for children include characters from adult horror films like Friday the 13th.
And how do you explain it all to little children who are living in a world where reality and pretend are almost indivisible?
You have to explain what all these monsters, witches, ghosts, and werewolves are and THEN, once they’re firmly lodged in your child’s brain, scaring the shit out of them, you have to spend the next however long it takes to convince them that the ghosts and witches and monsters don’t exist and can’t hurt them.
So should we ban Halloween? Or is embracing our fears the way to control them?
Can It Be Good To Be Scared?
Neil Gaiman, one of my favourite writers, reckons we invented stories about ghosts and ghouls as a way of helping our psyche deal with the real fears in our lives.
Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.
I think it’s like a fear vaccine. Scary stories inoculate us against the terrors within our own sub-concious. And Gaiman is also a fan of horror in children’s stories. All those fairy tales in their original form are as horrific as The Blair Witch.
These childhood horror stories allow our developing brain to go on a journey of experiencing fear in a controlled, safe space. A psychological rollercoaster. And at the end there is a resolution and we feel better able to cope.
So let’s agree that being scared in itself isn’t the problem. We can’t avoid our children having fears. It’s a guaranteed developmental stage. Babies will be startled by unexpected noises or objects or people but those things are simply reactions. Then, usually between two and three years old, the psychological, self-created terrors manifest in their minds.
Young children are still working out the world and they really aren’t sure what is real and what isn’t. Or what can hurt them and what can’t. I think our job as parents is to help children recognise the fear, process it, and catalogue it according to whether this is really something to be worried about.
Winter Is Coming…
Natural selection has hardwired fear into our brains. The children who were cautious long ago were less likely to be bitten by snakes, or to stray from the camp fire and be picked off by wolves. And so they survived and being fearful became a desirable genetic trait.
I think in ancient cultures the adults would have told children some stories precisely to stop them wandering off into the night or playing with things that could harm them.
As I am sure we all know by now, in most European cultures Halloween descended from the Celtic feast of Samhain, the day of the year when people thought the divide between the spirit world and the world of the living was blurred, embodied by the apparent death of the sun in the winter.
To our ancestors it really must have seemed that there was a chance it might not return – a truly terrifying possibility. It later became inculcated into the English Christian calendar as All Hallows Eve. But there are similar beliefs all over the world; the Mexican Day of the Dead is a combination of Spanish Catholicism and the Aztec worship of Mictecacihuatl, and I’m sure Diwali being a festival of lights has a similar root of being a challenge to the darkness.
So I think telling scary stories is OK as long as you are there to reassure and take your child on the journey through the darkness and back out into the light, stronger and braver. And we have to accept that Little B WILL be scared of things and we have to do our best to calm those fears and help him get over them, lest they become phobias in adult life.
How to talk to your children about Halloween
As we can’t escape the fright-fest I’ve been thinking about how to deal with the inevitable questions. Like any conversation the way you talk about this subject is going to depend on your children’s age but I’m coming at this from the point of view of pre-schoolers.
- Stay calm. Tears and fears can appear at the least expected moment. Your happily playing toddler can suddenly be spooked and it isn’t always obvious what has caused the meltdown. Hugs and reassurance are all that is needed until words can be formed through the snot bubbles and you realise the way the wind moved the tree or the pumpkin lantern they carved ten minutes ago with the face of a cat was the cause of hysteria.
- Ask them what they think. Always a good idea with any subject. You could wait for a question about the strange goings on or simply ask ‘Why do you think everyone is dressing up?’ There’s little point in over-explaining Halloween or going too far and ending up in an awkward conversation about whether ghosts are dead people (what do you mean people die?) So letting your little pumpkin take the lead is a good way to get a sense of how much they can grasp of the concepts and what they are really worried about. It might be that they’re most worried about having to eat the chocolate cake shaped like a bat.
- Keep your answers simple. Again, don’t overwhelm small minds with too much detail. What’s a witch? No need to go into the history or tales of burnings. Helpful ladies in very tall hats with plaits and cats will suffice. What’s a ghost? A friendly man who likes giving people a little scare for fun. Boo!
- Don’t tease or dismiss their fears. Children are new around these parts and in the brief time they’ve been alive there’s been a lot to take in. Lots of decisions about what is and isn’t a threat. Some children are naturally cautious and easily scared. And the world of their imaginations, and ours, is part of their reality. So until they’ve worked it all out it’s no fun to have people bigger than you laugh or tell you not to be silly when you know there’s a monster living in the tree outside your bedroom window.
- Make it fun. The best way to dispel a fear is to laugh about it. So if Halloween has a purpose for children let’s make it about the world not being such a scary place. Turn the ghosts and witches and zombies into a cast of merry-making friends who come along once a year to put a smile on our faces. Yes, with the occasional ‘Boo!’ But never leave little children with a scare. Which brings us to the epilogue…
Spiders Are Our Friends
After #IncyWincyGate Little B and I had a chat about the spiders and we agreed that the naughty spider who bit Little B’s finger had definitely gone back to his house. (I couldn’t point to the spider’s house on a map but I can guarantee you that it’s a very long way from our house.)
So when I came back from work on Thursday I was a bit surprised to see a load of plastic spiders (like the ones that had invaded the sandwich shop) on the dining room table, along with some plastic pumpkins and a ghost.
“Why are there loads of spiders on the table?” I enquired of Mrs B.
“Oh he chose them. He insisted on bringing them back from the supermarket.”
And when Little B came into the room I asked him myself, just in case Mrs B had lost the plot after another week with two small people.
“Did you choose these spiders?”
“Yes daddy. They very nice,” he said, as if he’d just described a delicious cake.
“Err that’s great, but I thought you didn’t like spiders?”
“No daddy!” he said with the weariness of Alan Sugar about to fire a failed apprentice. “That is the naughty spider. These are HAPPY SPIDERS daddy! I LIKE THEM!”
And he shoved one of the disgusting creatures in my face to emphasise his point.
So there we are.
Even when you’re only two, the best way to deal with your fears is to embrace them.
Happy Halloween everyone!
Categories: Big Issues