Halloween is more than two months away, but already I’ve seen products and displays going up in a few places. For better or worse, the holidays creep further and further out from their actual date as retailers see opportunities to sell their goods. And to add to the impending spookiness that awaits us, I spent part of my Friday night watching a scary movie with my children, fully aware that it would necessitate cramming four people into a single bed, somewhere around midnight – I was, of course, proven right. All of this has me reflecting on the socio-cultural significances of Halloween as a reflection of cultural transformation, even if it is a single night. Yes, even the simplest things start the mind wandering.
A few years back, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State’s Delaware County Campus, noted that parents need to realize that scaring our kids isn’t necessarily a way to mitigate kids’ fears of death and other things frightening. Rightfully, she contended that Halloween is a time when we expose kids to behavior that is not the norm and that children connect the holiday with death. The argument goes that we, regardless of who “We” are, typically distance ourselves from death and shield children from it, but in this case, young children encounter their fears when they face decorations of skeletons and tombstones. This can be scarring. This, of course, is bad. Or is it? Is it even accurate?
First, we expose our children to death regularly. What we shield our kids from is pollution associated with decay. In the case of Halloween, we are presenting our children with a sanitized, safe form of death that has none of the associations with contamination. Second, children are exposed to death when they play video games, tune in to the TV or deal with the loss of a grandparent. We may try to lessen the pain or deflect the underlying causality, but death itself is indeed part of a child’s upbringing, though it may not be as overt as it is at Halloween. I will concede that we expose our children to death less than we perhaps did in the past, when people worked the farm together and were accustomed to things like slaughter, but to assume children are shielded from death is fantasy. We’ve simply changed the medium.
And should we even be shielding kids in the first place? We often work under the assumption that it is somehow our duty as parents to protect children from any and all discomfort, but there is nothing out there to prove that doing so benefits the child. Fear teaches, particularly when it is safe. Discomfort teaches, particularly when it isn’t overwhelming. Children are, I would contend, smarter than we often think. To assume they can’t make the leap between the literal and the symbolic is a bit obtuse. While Halloween teaches children about death, it also teaches them about the nature of symbolism, rules of reciprocity, a sense of self-reliance, creativity and a host of other positive elements of personhood.
As my oldest daughter walked from house to house last Halloween with her friend from Egypt, getting treats from homes comprised of people from a wide range of nations (our neighborhood happens to have large south Asian and Middle Eastern populations) it struck me how important this holiday is, because it is so public and because it is wrapped up in a universal need to deflect the fear of death. It is a holiday that encourages parents and kids of other cultures to join in the fun and feel like they are welcome and integral parts of the adopted culture. It exposes the children and parents of the adoptive culture to people and worldviews they may not have otherwise interacted with. The experience can be thought of as enculturation, the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquiring values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture. This has often been conceived to be a unidimensional, zero-sum cultural conflict in which the minority’s culture is diminished by the dominant group’s culture, but it’s not that simple. There is an exchange of sorts going on. There are a couple of ways a person learns a culture. Direct teaching of a culture is what happens when you don’t pay attention, mostly by the parents, when a person is told to do something because it is right and to not do something because it is bad. For example, when children ask for something, they are constantly asked “What do you say?” and the child is expected to remember to say “please.” A second conscious way a person learns a culture is to watch others around them and to emulate their behavior. But in doing so, they often alter elements of it and reshape the culture – culture isn’t fixed, after all, it is a matter of practice, negation and shared invention.
What this means is that Halloween becomes a way of learning and exchanging. Day of the Dead decorations find new uses, costumes come to reflect the sensibilities of the minority population and new ways of defining and interacting with the world emerge. And there are very real, very meaningful results. Businesses alter their merchandise, retailers decorate differently and new modes of shopping arise. People develop new interests and curiosity about their world. So, yes, Halloween may indeed scare the children, but the benefits of being scared outweigh a night of belly aches and spooky dreams.