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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?