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Whatcha Gonna Be? Should Kids’ Costumes Be Rated ‘G’?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Celebrations & Traditions

A 2011 national survey by Safe Kids Worldwide found that 9 parents in 10 permit their children to participate in Halloween trick-or-treating, community parties and parades or in-home Halloween events. Most of those children arrive in costume. Dressed up as what?

If you permit dressing up at Halloween and if your child permits you to dress him up, what sort of costume hits the right note? Given the fact that Halloween is often portrayed as a time when being scary and being scared are hallmarks of a successful holiday, how far do you permit your child to go? Does it matter if children’s costumes are not rated ‘G’?

A fascinating study of children’s costume choices found that the most popular costumes in evidence on the researcher’s own doorstep in 2007 were Princess, Witch, and Spiderman. Costumes were categorized by their level of unusualness and by their supposed level of expected reaction: neutral reaction, laughed at unkindly, or praised for being outstanding. The assumption was that it’s better to be praised than to be laughed at and that a neutral reaction is just that: neutral.

Given all that, the study found that children’s comfort with ambiguity – their ability to make a decision when not all the facts are in – corresponded to riskiness of costume choice. More daring kids quite naturally were the ones who chose uncommon subjects for their costumes and made an effort to earn praise and admiration in an original and unusual costume design (though they might have earned unkind laughter instead). Children less comfortable with ambiguity chose more common costume themes – these were the princesses, witches and spidermen – and expressed those themes in ways designed to get a safely neutral reaction.

So your child’s thoughts about his Halloween costume this year are likely based in his willingness to bet on high praise for an unusual, original costume or his desire to play it safe. Younger kids aim for safe. Older kids may push things to the edge.

And it’s the edge we’re talking about. What sort of limits do you want to put on that edge?

There’s not much research on the effects on children’s behavior of dressing up as something dangerous or provocative. So the straight line we might want to draw between an axe murderer costume and later delinquency just doesn’t exist. We do know that every year small children dressed as Superman fling themselves off of garage roofs. At least in younger kids the difference between fantasy and reality seems unclear. And studies of video game play and fantasy role-playing among older children indicate that acting out roles in the context of games can seem quite real. But it appears to be confined to the limits of the games themselves. Older kids generally do not continue to live their lives as characters. So there’s not much we can say from a scientific point of view about the effects of children’s costumes on how they behave.

Which leaves us with our own feelings about the matter. Which are probably good enough. Here are my feelings:

1. Don’t set your child up. This is not the time to act out your own fantasies by dressing your preschooler in the goriest Dracula costume you can find or in a scaled-down Playboy bunny outfit. Sure, the shocking mismatch of subject matter and your child’s age will get you some attention from the other adults on your trick-or-treat route. But it’s attention at your child’s expense. When your children are small, let them be princesses, friendly witches, bunnies and kitties. You might not get another chance.

If your child is older, resist the temptation to pressure him to dress up in reflection of your own tastes. Kids younger than voting age shouldn’t go as political candidates. He may be cornered into defending ideas of which he has no knowledge.

2. Pay attention to the message. It’s a visual world and your child’s choice of costume says something about him. Help him to represent himself well by steering him away from a costume that will raise eyebrows in the neighborhood. Costumes that hint at stereotypes, that are over-sexualized, or seem to glamourize crime may not be well-received and may send the wrong message.

3. Let your conscience be your guide. If you think your kid’s costume crosses the line, then go ahead and forbid it. Since we don’t have any research to help us, we’ve got to go with our gut. If the costume might be appropriate for your child but scares his younger sibling half to death, then get him to tone it down. Your need to set limits may vary from child to child – keep in mind how you think this child views the persona she’s adopting by wearing this get-up and set your limits accordingly.

Costumes are part of the fun of Halloween. In fact, since many kids plot who they’ll be next year starting on November 1st, dressing up as someone else may be even more important to the holiday than the candy. The trick – and the treat – is to keep things fun for everyone.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.