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HALLOWEEN: A Time for Tricks, Treats, and Empathy Education

Donna Tetreault

As kids all across the country prepare for Halloween, the costume conversation is one that dominates households day and night. In my home, my two sons frequently have a change of plans. I’ve learned to hold off on buying any costumes until just a couple weeks before the fright-filled night.

This Halloween, consumers will spend roughly $3.4 billion on costumes alone, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual Halloween survey. But according to MCC’s Faculty Director, Rick Weissbourd, the decision about what costume to wear can be much more than an exercise in capitalism. In fact, if we dig deeper in these conversations, he says, Halloween can be “an empathy building opportunity.” How can you talk to your child about offensive or violent costumes? How can you start a conversation about inclusion? How can you help your child understand that their decisions impact others?

Your conversation might start with a discussion of intention. There is a difference between a boy wanting to dress up like a ballerina for Halloween because he thinks ballerinas are cool and a boy who wants to wear a tutu as a joke or caricature. The conversation about his intention is an opportunity to explain that his decision may not be funny to someone who loves ballet or wearing tutus. 

This message goes beyond gender. We have to be cognizant of those with different cultural or racial identities. Weissbourd explains, “If your child suggests a costume that caricatures a racial or ethnic group, it is really an opportunity to think it through with your child: What is going to be the experience of a person in that ethnic group if you dress up that way? What message does it send? Stress to the child that it may mean nothing to him, but it could mean something very different to somebody else.”

Halloween is also the perfect time to celebrate individuality and inclusion. Costumes allow kids to express themselves in a variety of ways. Weissbourd says that this can also raise questions: “Are other people going to accept this aspect of me? Do they appreciate this aspect of me? When kids have questions, it’s an opportunity to engage your child in conversation and offer thoughtful guidance.”

In the spirit of Halloween, spooky, scary and violent costumes can also bring lessons to our children. Weissbourd says, “There are some circumstances where violence is really troubling, but a kid dressed up as a monster who has blood on him or her, or is a soldier or a hunter with a gun, that is part of the spirit of Halloween. It’s supposed to be a scary holiday. I don’t think we should over-protect kids. I think one has to use good judgment.” Weissbourd also points out that wearing a violent costume on Halloween is not desensitizing our kids to violence. Rather, it’s a steady stream of violent media images and video games that desensitizes them.

Finally, as you broach the costume conversation with your child and build a stronger foundation of empathy education in your home, think about what your child’s costume pick means to you. Are you allowing your child to be who they want to be without bringing in your irrational concerns? Are you showing your own child empathy? Of course, your direction may be needed in some instances, that’s just part of parenting. 

Now let’s go back to that boy I wrote about earlier, the one who wants to be a ballerina for Halloween. That’s my son. Whether or not he is actually going to be a ballerina remains to be seen, as he is always changing his mind. But after talking it out with him, I know his intent is not to tease, but to honor, in his own way, the fact that ballerinas are cool.

Empathy-building questions for you and your child:

  1. Why do I want to wear this particular costume?

  2. How will I explain my costume choice to people when they ask?

  3. How might my costume choice make another person feel?

  4. Is this costume a good choice? Why?

  5. Even though this is a time for tricks, am I being kind and inclusive to all?

THE PRACTICE OF GRATITUDE: Now and Beyond the Holiday Season

Donna Tetreault

Ralph Waldo Emerson said this about gratitude: “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Emerson’s message is clear: Gratitude should be practiced, always.

Gratitude is a theme during the holidays. Whether we are celebrating and giving thanks at Thanksgiving, choosing to help others who are in need or without during Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, gratitude is present. But how can we continue this expression of gratitude throughout the year? The answer: practice, practice, practice.

“Gratitude is a profoundly moral emotion,” according to MCC’s Research and Evaluation Manager, Dr. Milena Batanova. “Appreciating what one has naturally helps with recognizing what others don't have. We know from research that gratitude is also linked to happiness and well-being. It has a lot to do with positive thinking and recognizing positive things in your life, positive people in your life.” Engaging in the practice of gratitude makes us feel good, Batanova explains, and also makes others feel good, benefiting all involved.

There are three simple ways to get started in the practice of gratitude. First, the holiday season is a great time to kick start the message at home. Second, practice gratitude every day, and third, begin to extend the practice of gratitude beyond your home. 

In many ways, according to Batanova, “gratitude is a way of expressing humility, to show a grounded sense of self and really appreciating others, their sacrifices, however small, the nice things that other people do for us. Expressing gratitude can also be about expressing empathy, showing that you care about someone, especially in times of need. All of these things are interrelated and take practice and reflection.”

Kick start gratitude during the holiday season

  • Get kids to think about all that they have. Maybe it’s a warm and clean home. Maybe it’s a special tradition a child enjoys. Batanova explains, “when we think about what we have, that in turn makes us much more grateful.” Ask a child to think about how they’d like to help someone who is homeless or someone without holiday traditions. How can they be of service? Get kids to get creative. It has to be meaningful to them.

  • Write thank-you notes to each other and extended family during the holiday season--you might even include them among your holiday gifts. What are you thankful for? Why are you thankful for a particular family member? 

Practice gratitude every day

  • Give kids a daily prompt to think about the things they are grateful for. Get specific. Ask them if someone did something for them at school. Did a particular teacher give extra help or lend an ear? Did a friend help them in some way? Did someone they don’t know smile at them? 

  • Parents can model simple expressions of gratitude in the home. Parents can thank kids for going above and beyond at home--for example, for clearing the table or doing the dishes without being asked. 

  • Parents and children can practice using a gratitude journal, writing down what they are grateful for each evening. Even a quick sentence or word can get the job done and be meaningful.

  • When gratitude is not being expressed at all, Batanova says, “Call it out. Be explicit.” If a child, for instance, repeatedly doesn’t express gratitude for something a parent or sibling did for them, Batanova says to be honest and let the child know that can be hurtful, even insulting. Explain that it doesn’t take much to show appreciation.

  • “Try not to make it a chore, though,” Batanova explains further. “You don’t want it becoming something scripted, something that you or kids do just because. It has to be authentic.”

Extend gratitude beyond your inner circle

  • Find a way to express gratitude to people who are outside of your immediate circles by exposing children to those different from them, who are from other cultures, or who have different experiences. Together you might write a thank-you note to the school janitor or send a letter to someone in the military expressing gratitude for their service. (Operation Gratitude is a great starting point for anyone who wants to give thanks to our military.)

YOUNG LOVE: Preparing Our Kids for Healthy and Happy Relationships

Donna Tetreault

The romanticizing of idealized love may work well in Shakespeare, but in real life, romantic relationships don't always provide the sunniest of seasons. Adults struggle with healthy romantic relationships as do young adults and teens. How can we change this? How can we start educating our children at an earlier age? What does a healthy relationship look like? This Valentine's Day is a great time to begin this conversation.

Making Caring Common's report, The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People's Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment, provides important research and suggestions to get a dialogue going that can prove life altering for our children.

According to Joe McIntyre, Research Advisor for Making Caring Common, 70% the 18 to 25-year-olds surveyed for the report wished they had heard more from their parents on how to begin relationships, how to have more mature relationships, how to deal with breakups, or how to avoid being hurt. McIntyre explains, "We had a lot of students telling us they wish they had heard this from their parents. It can be hard to believe at times because young people often don't want to have these conversations in the moment, but what we are hearing later on is that they wished they had had these conversations." McIntyre adds that, according to the report, the conversations that parents did have with their kids were influential.

Another key finding in the report, says McIntyre, is that, "parents are concerned about the wrong aspect of young relationships, the so-called 'hookup culture.' Our evidence says that most young people are not engaging in casual hookups. They much more prefer to be in the context of a relationship."

The following are some of MCC's recommendations for having these important conversations with young people:

Guide young people in identifying healthy and unhealthy relationships:

Adults can ask questions that help teens identify the markers of healthy and unhealthy relationships. One important marker is whether a romantic relationship makes both partners more respectful, compassionate, generous, and hopeful.

McIntyre says, "It can be helpful to identify aspects of relationships depicted in the media that are inconsistent with the values that parents and teachers hold."

Talk about what it means to be an ethical person:

Helping young people develop the skills to maintain caring romantic relationships and treat those of different genders with dignity and respect also helps strengthen their ability to develop caring, responsible relationships at every stage of their lives and to grow into ethical adults, community members, and citizens.

It's never too early to start "the talk":

Help prepare kids in advance, says McIntyre, "so it doesn't feel like it's something you are springing on them, but certainly at the point when kids are starting to think about sexual and romantic relationships, it's really important that these discussions be had in a really open and clear way."

Tailor the conversation to the age of the child. For example, 'your body is your own, you need to be respectful of other people's bodies as well.' And, 'Girls should be respected. Boys should be respected too.'

Step in:

When parents and other adults witness degrading, sexualized words or behavior, it's imperative that they intervene. Silence can be understood as permission. Adults need to talk much more with each other and with school counselors and other experts about what types of interventions are likely to be effective and try out various approaches.

For more tips and resources, read the full report.