elevating child care

Creative Spirits – Making the Most out of Halloween

When a child is two or three years old he experiences one of life’s biggest miracles. He rings a doorbell, calls out a simple phrase and a grown-up hands him candy! What could be more divine?
The miracle of candy is undoubtedly the bedrock of a child’s love for Halloween. But there are other elements of Halloween in which a child can delight, and they will give him more to savor than just sugary sweets. When young children are invited to fully participate in holiday activities, new traditions are created that make the experience richer for everyone. Let’s start with pumpkins.
A two-year-old child can choose a pumpkin. It might be the most lop-sided, lumpy and unattractive pumpkin we’ve ever seen, and it may not even stand up properly, but does that matter? When we let go of the notion of creating the ‘perfect’ holiday from our point-of-view and allow a child to lead in the fun, it lightens our spirit and our child gains self-confidence when we trust his choices. Participation is the key.
When we bring the lumpy pumpkin home the child can participate in carving it. No, not with a knife of course, but if the child wishes to scrawl something, anything with a pen or crayon on the pumpkin, the parent can then carve the drawing. The child enjoys watching her parent carve out the creation, even if it’s just a crooked line. And when a candle is placed inside, the child’s jack-o-lantern is complete and it is a creation she takes pride in. But if mommy or daddy is carving a masterpiece nearby, the child may not have the incentive to make anything. When we draw, sculpt, carve or even build a sandcastle for a child, we discourage the child from doing those things herself. If the child cannot do as well as mommy or daddy, why bother? The unfortunate result of this is that the child disengages from an activity that might have provided a creative outlet. I witnessed vivid proof of this theory several years ago.
My husband and I brought our three-year-old daughter to his company’s family picnic at the park. One of the children’s activities was to decorate T-shirts with tubes of paint. My daughter was given a white T-shirt and we sat at the picnic table together. I was utterly amazed when all the parents who joined the activity with their children showed the children how they should design a T-shirt by painting it themselves. There was not one parent who would let a child freely decorate a T-shirt; the adults completely dominated. “Let’s put a sun over here. And now I’ll write your name.” Was it because it was a T-shirt and not just a piece of paper? Was a T-shirt too valuable to leave in the hands of a three-, four-, five-, six- and even seven-year-old? Would the child’s creation not be ‘good enough?’
The end result of this spontaneous experiment was illuminating indeed. The T-shirts were hung out to dry in a tree. None of the children showed the slightest interest in the finished T-shirts. The parents retrieved them after they had dried, but the children could not have cared less. They had contributed nothing to the shirts and felt no ownership.
Meanwhile my daughter, Charlotte, sat completely absorbed, as she took a tube of paint and squeezed it to make a short vertical drip on her T-shirt. Young children are usually more inclined to experiment with the mechanics of art materials than they are to conjure up a design. She chose another color and made another line on her shirt. Enjoying this process with all her senses, she made one line after another, each with a different tube of paint.
Charlotte and I lingered, long after the other children, who had watched their parents paint designs on T-shirts, had left the table. There were just a few latecomers left. When Charlotte finally finished she admired her work. “I’m an artist,” she said thoughtfully. “Yes, you are,” I responded. A parent across from us smiled at me in a conspiratorial and slightly demeaning way. We hung Charlotte’s T-shirt up to dry and she wanted to check on it twenty minutes later. At the end of the company picnic, she proudly took it home.
This event was a profound lesson for me, and it reinvigorated my belief that children must be left alone to direct their artistic endeavors. There is little reason for a child to be involved in an art project if it is not produced solely by the child. Well-meaning parents who demonstrate their own creative talents for children risk making them feel incapable, discouraged and disinterested. Children should be trusted to participate, not only in art projects but in all the activities they encounter, to the furthest extent of their capabilities. Now let’s return to a child’s participation in Halloween.
A child as young as two is capable of choosing his Halloween costume. When Charlotte was two she said she wanted to be a “kitty-cat.” If I was crafty I could have made something with her, but instead I took her to a costume store and she chose between the several cat costumes they had. She chose a black, cartoonish cat costume and wore it well.
Charlotte’s costume choice was the beginning of a long line of yearly costume decisions made by my three children. Halloween should be a time of fantasy. What other day in the year are we encouraged to live out a wish to be someone or something other than who we are? Parents should not suggest costumes to a child. It is much more interesting to wait to see what the child comes up with all on his own. And when we allow our child to initiate his choice, we encourage him to express his inner desires.
Once children are donned in their fantasy garb, the Trick-or-Treating and parties they take part in should be as wholesome and child-friendly as possible. Less is more, and going to the houses of a few jolly neighbors is best. Beware of parties where people dress for shock value, like the one where an acquaintance of mine, who should know better, dressed as a drunken wife-beater. That may have been his fantasy, but it was a bit too real for my tastes. Children do not understand horror costumes, or people covered in blood. Sensitive beings that they are, young children frighten easily. My daughter Madeline’s first Halloween night was almost ruined by a talking pumpkin that terrified her when it spoke the nightmarish words: “Give me your candy!”
My youngest child, Ben, had a more glowing first Trick-or-Treat experience. We had just left our house with Ben attired in his chosen outfit: a ghost in a sheet, when it began to rain. We visited a couple of houses before it started pouring. I picked Ben up and ran with him down the street, both of us giggling. We stopped at just one more house where a party was in progress, and there outside stood a tall, lovely woman in an elaborate angel costume offering candy. When we got home Ben burst into the house soaking wet and exclaimed to his dad, “I saw an angel!” A celestial vision and the heavenly taste of candy made for an indelible first impression of Halloween.
Halloween can be a time of wonder, imagination and creativity for children if parents can suspend their perceptions of how it ‘should’ be. Halloween, as with other holidays and events designed for children, are best seen through a child’s eyes. In fact, observing a child’s spontaneous creativity is one of the miracles of life over which any parent should marvel.
When a child is two or three years old he experiences one of life’s biggest miracles. He rings a doorbell, calls out a simple phrase and a grown-up hands him candy! What could be more divine?
The miracle of candy is undoubtedly the bedrock of a child’s love for Halloween. But there are other elements of Halloween children delight in and can savor as much as the sugary sweets. When we invite our children to fully participate in holiday activities, new traditions are created that make the experience richer for everyone. Let’s start with pumpkins…

A two-year-old child can choose a pumpkin. It might be the most lop-sided, lumpy and unattractive pumpkin we’ve ever seen, and it may not even stand up properly, but does that matter? When we let go of the notion of creating the ‘perfect’ holiday from our point-of-view and allow a child to lead in the fun, it lightens our spirit, and our child gains self-confidence because we are trusting his choices. Participation is the key.

When we bring the lumpy pumpkin home our toddler can participate in carving it (but not with a knife). If the child wishes to scrawl something, anything with a pen or crayon on the pumpkin, we can carve the drawing. Our child enjoys watching us carve out her creation, even if it’s just a crooked line. And when a candle is placed inside, the jack-o-lantern is complete and it is a creation our toddler takes pride in. (These look really cool. You may never want to go back to carving faces again.)

But if mommy or daddy is carving a masterpiece nearby, a child may not have the incentive to make anything. When we draw, sculpt, carve or even build a sandcastle for our child, we discourage her from doing those things herself. If she can’t do as well as mommy or daddy, why bother? The unfortunate result of this is that our children disengage from an activity that might have provided a creative outlet. I witnessed vivid proof of this theory several years ago…

My husband and I brought our three-year-old daughter to his company’s family picnic at the park. One of the children’s activities was to decorate T-shirts with tubes of paint.  My daughter was given a white T-shirt and we sat at the picnic table together. I was utterly amazed when all the parents began showing their children how they should design a T-shirt by painting it themselves. There was not one parent who would trust a child to decorate his own T-shirt; the adults completely dominated. “Let’s put a sun over here. And now I’ll write your name.” Was it because it was a T-shirt and not just a piece of paper? Was a T-shirt too valuable to leave in the hands of a three-, four-, five-, six- and even seven-year-old? Would the child’s creation not be ‘good enough?’

The end result of this spontaneous experiment was illuminating. The T-shirts were hung out to dry in a tree. None of the children showed the slightest interest in the finished T-shirts. The parents retrieved them after they had dried, but the children could not have cared less. They had contributed nothing to the shirts and felt no ownership.

Meanwhile, my daughter sat completely absorbed as she took a tube of paint and squeezed it to make a short vertical drip on her T-shirt. Young children are usually more inclined to experiment with the mechanics of art materials than they are to conjure up a design. She chose another color and made another line on her shirt. Immersed in this process, she made one line after another, each with a different tube of paint.

She and I lingered, long after the other children, who had watched their parents paint designs on T-shirts, had left the table. There were just a few latecomers left. When my daughter finally finished she admired her work and said thoughtfully, “I’m an artist.”  “Yes, you are,” I replied. A parent across from us smiled at me in a conspiratorial and slightly demeaning way. We hung the T-shirt up to dry and my daughter wanted to check on it twenty minutes later. At the end of the company picnic, she proudly took it home.

This event was a profound lesson for me, and it reinvigorated my belief that children must be left alone to direct their artistic endeavors. There is little reason for a child to be involved in an art project if it’s not produced solely by the child. When we well-meaningly demonstrate our own creative talents for our children we risk making them feel incapable, discouraged and disinterested. Our children need to be trusted to participate, not only in art projects but in all the activities they encounter, to the furthest extent of their capabilities. Now, back to Halloween…

A child as young as two is capable of choosing his Halloween costume. When my eldest was two she said she wanted to be a “kitty-cat.” If I was crafty I could have made something with her, but instead I took her to a costume store and she chose between the several cat costumes they had. She chose a black, cartoonish cat costume and wore it well.

This was the beginning of a long line of yearly costume decisions made by my three children. Halloween should be a time of fantasy. What other day in the year are we encouraged to live out a wish to be someone or something other than who we are?  I don’t ever suggest costumes to my kids because it’s so much more interesting to wait to see what they comes up with on their own. Allowing them to make choices encourages the expression of their inner desires.

I’m also a believer in Trick-or-Treating and parties for toddlers that are as wholesome and child-friendly as possible. Less is more. Sometimes just going to the houses of a few jolly neighbors is best. Beware of parties where people dress for shock value, like the one where an acquaintance of mine, who should know better, dressed as a drunken wife-beater. (That may have been his fantasy, but it was a bit too real for my tastes.) Children don’t understand horror costumes, or people covered in blood. Toddlers are sensitive and we want to keep them that way.  My middle daughter’s first Halloween night at 2 ½ was almost ruined by a talking pumpkin that terrified her when it spoke the nightmarish words: “Give me your candy!”

My youngest had a more glowing first Trick-or-Treat experience. We had just left our house with him attired in his chosen outfit: a ghost in a sheet, when it began to rain. We visited a couple of houses before it started pouring. I picked him up and ran with him down the street, both of us giggling. We stopped at just one more house where a party was in progress, and there outside stood a tall, lovely woman in an elaborate angel costume offering candy. When we got home my son burst into the house soaking wet and exclaimed to his dad, “I saw an angel!” A celestial vision and the heavenly taste of candy made for an indelible first impression of Halloween.

Halloween can be a time of wonder, imagination and creativity for children if we can suspend our perceptions of how it ‘should’ be, and see it through our child’s eyes.

What are you going to be?

I share more about this creative, child-led approach in 

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

Related Posts with Thumbnails

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30 Responses to “Creative Spirits – Making the Most out of Halloween”

  1. avatar cecille says:

    Even though I am not a parent. I love children and have been tutoring reading for the past 3 years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to 2nd and 3rd graders. This blog is G-d sent as it offers a professional’s point of view with a lot of soul, intelligence and insight. Better than my school books in my ECE class.

  2. avatar carla says:

    Perfect timing as we prepare for the upcoming holiday. Choosing a costume is an intriguing prospect. Our little one’s favorite dress-up item: his fireman suit. But does it still count as dress-up if you wear it all the time?
    Seriously, I wish I had found this blog a few years ago. What a gift you are giving to so many. Thank you for sharing.

  3. avatar Alessandra says:

    It is very important to let a child develop his/her own personality. Thank you for reminding parents how important it is to let the child DO a task. Perhaps the parent is nervous or,thinks that pointing things out is what one is “supposed to do”.
    I also agree about having more fun costumes rather than horror ones.

  4. avatar Ginger says:

    Thank you for pointing out that children should be allowed to make their own choices whenever possible. A couple of times my oldest son wanted to dress like some obscure character from a book. I thought that it might bother him that people kept asking him who he was “supposed to be”, but he loved explaining it.

    • avatar janet says:

      Ginger, thank you for sharing your insightful observation. It’s a continual challenge for me to remember to trust my children’s creative choices. It’s especially difficult for adults who are creative themselves. We have so many ideas to give our children. I think it’s great that you allowed your boy to follow his own desires. What a lucky boy!

    • avatar Christine says:

      My guys do that too. Original characters which require elaborate explanations, because no one gets it. I hope they never learn to feel awkward about this (even though I sometimes do)
      A child’s mind is a beautiful thing.

  5. avatar Doug Fieger says:

    I wish you had been my parents !!! Actually, my mom was pretty good at allowing for my creative expression and at least accepting and allowing the reality of my desires when I chose my own paths, even if she didn’t share my interests or understand them. The fact, unfortunately, that there didn’t seem to be a “united front” with her and my dad in that regard was difficult at times and made me wish that I had gotten more support from the two of them. There’s a big difference, I think, and one that a child certainly is aware of when both parents aren’t on the same page.

  6. avatar hailey says:

    funny you should share this with me as I contemplated days later the experience I had at the Harvest Festival at the Waldorf school. It couldn’t have been more perfect, crafts were offered so I wanted Troy to participate at 15 months old to paint a wooden pumpkin rattle he was so impressed with himself at the first brush strokes but then he started putting his brush in an another tube and I took his hand and he resisted which he ending wacking his face giving himself a black mustache and then he fought fiercely taking the brush away so he wouldn’t get paint all over..so I found myself thinking was he too young and I maybe I was too old…

  7. avatar Erica says:

    I LOVE this post. So great. Thank you.

  8. avatar Katie says:

    My 16 month old picked her costume this year. Halloween wasn’t even on my radar yet when she found a ladybug costume while we were out running errands (in August!). She was instantly drawn to it so we brought it home. She’s “practiced” wearing it several times already and we’re looking forward to the big day!

    • avatar janet says:

      Awww, sounds perfect, Katie..enjoy! But also realize that the big day may not be nearly as fun as the practice…especially for a 16 month old.

  9. avatar Sarah says:

    My two cant wait to carve our home grown pumpkin ( mummy has her fingers crossed it lasts till then). My daughter was born on Hallowe’en and thinks its so unfair that all children don’t get to dress up on their birthday and knock on doors! My son loved drawing his face on the pumpkin and scooping out the bits ( he was 2 1/2) last year. He found the costume side scary and is not enjoying all the masks etc in the shops at the moment though.

  10. avatar elle m. says:

    I love your work, Janet. I never knew we were such a RIE family until a friend introduced us to your website. Sometimes certain posts challenge my own parenting / caregiving methods and ideas [which I love!], but usually there are posts like this one, I read through it and think- “Wait, this isn’t what people do? This isn’t the norm?” haha

    Also, I saw you speak at the RIE conference. Thank you so much. Your raw honesty just made everything you write here all the more meaningful. <3 Much love and admiration.

    • avatar janet says:

      Awww, thank you so much for commenting, Elle! Much love to you, too!

  11. avatar Jennifer says:

    I’m in total sync with this article, but I wanted to ask for clarification on the point that parents shouldn’t create alongside their children, as its something that I actively encourage. My thought process is that as long as a parent isn’t doing his or her work in a showy or comparasion-inviting way to the child (your example of an elaborate pumpkin beside a modest one), and is instead showing their own absorbtion in the creative process. I especially think that parents should create alongside to reduce the likelihood of them overtaking their child’s work, and also for the benefits that the creative process would offer parents.

    • avatar janet says:

      Jennifer, I agree that “parallel play and art” as you describe it can work for some parents and children. But I suggest proceeding with great caution and awareness… Our superior ability can be very intimidating, especially for children who do not have a strong creative bent of their own, but would use creative projects therapeutically. Rolling clay, drawing “scribbles” and spirals, etc., are the safest ways to create next to a child, in my opinion.

  12. avatar Jill says:

    I inwardly groan when I think about your art example. I was a third grade teacher for 5 years and completely fell into that trap of showing my students how to perfectly complete an art project. Inevitably they would all look different then mine, some of the more eager-to-please students would work very hard to come close to mine. The more independent students could care less what I did and did their own thing, which I always allowed and encouraged, thank goodness. But then there would always be one or two that were definitely intimidated by what I had done, and their own less than perfect works became frustrating.

    Becoming a parent, I have changed so many of my views with teaching or as is often the case, not teaching (letting the child be free to choose, learn, play, etc). I love being at home with my three, but I often crave going back to the classroom so that I can apply all of my new knowledge. Unfortunately, my views would be considered a little too progressive at most schools. I’ll have to go the way of Teacher Tom and start my own. 🙂

  13. avatar Mary says:

    A very similar thing just happened to us at a company fall fest. I “let” my 3 year old daughter paint an entire pumpkin black and all the adult onlookers were aghast. Most kids were being directed or “shown how” to paint. If we can’t let kids have a voice with one pumpkin, once a year, how likely is it that we are allowing them a voice during more important, less comfortable times ?

  14. Lovely article…will share

  15. avatar Jenny says:

    I agree with the creative bit and coming up with their own costume ideas. As children get older, they will be trick-or-treating with friends, so it’s good for them to get practice early on in finding their voice! I will say that many adults adore Halloween, so if you are worried about your child’s exposure to scary things, proceed at your own risk and don’t take the fun away from others!

  16. avatar Liza Savage says:

    Yes, Janet!!! This particular article excites me a lot. Particularly this bit: “Young children are usually more inclined to experiment with the mechanics of art materials than they are to conjure up a design.”

    I am currently in my third year of university, studying towards a Bachelor of fine arts. The first year was focussed on breaking our perceptions of what art “should” be. It also introduced us to the concept of materiality. Exploring, experimenting, and PLAYING with the art materials, rather than solely focussing on aesthetics, or a ‘design’.

    I feel that there is a need to unlearn a lot of what most of us have had impinged on us during our own childhood, and schooling years. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if there was no need to unlearn these expectations, of what art is? Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if we could all appreciate the awesome creativity and originality our young ones have already built-in them? I often laugh to myself, as I watch my son take many “things” and connect them together in a way I would have never thought possible – in essence, creating a wonderful sculpture. I laugh – of course, not at him – but at myself, and having to come to art school to learn what my son clearly demonstrates every single day: Make, play, experiment, explore.

    He is my greatest teacher.

  17. avatar Abby says:

    I experienced something similar to your t-shirt decorating experience a couple of weeks ago at our first trip to the Home Depot monthly craft. The craft was to put together and paint a fire truck kit. The other child at our table had two adults perfectly painting all of the pieces of her fire truck while I let my two work completely alone on painting theirs. One of the other adults tried to give my three year old a plate with paint on it that was “better” because it wasn’t mixed together, and I said something like, “thank you, but I don’t think she minds the paint mixing.” Both of my kids made beautiful fire trucks that were more works of art then a toy you could buy at a store, and they were so proud to show them off and talked about them for weeks.
    I experience this a lot with people even just trying to tell their kids how to color a picture. I’m so glad for your blog and others who have similar teachings.

  18. avatar Neh says:

    Hi Janet! My 3 year old son really enjoyed Halloween. Of course dressing up and getting candy was a blast but trick or treating also provided him a great opportunity to see people in our neighborhood and also practice a little meet and greet speak. My only concern about the night is when older kids aged 5-8 cut in front of and pushed aside my child who was clearly first standing right outside a doorway. I was by his side to keep him safe but did not say anything to the other kids as it took me by surprise and happened fast – also I know those kids meant no harm – after all they are young too and are overexcited and just want to get as much candy as possible. But I still think their behavior was unkind. My son seemed more confused and not really upset. My question is what should I have done to model good behavior for my child. I feel guilty that I did not speak up for my child and don’t want him to think it’s okay to be pushed around/walked over.

  19. avatar Neh says:

    P.S. Thank you for everything you do Janet. Your books, blogs and podcasts have been incredibly helpful to me.

  20. avatar Jodi says:

    I’m guilty (ugh – so guilty!) of trying to make the “perfect” holiday that my 4 year old now says “you do it, Mom” every time a creative opportunity is offered. I made up for it last year when he decided to be a rabies germ for Halloween. That took some work and lots of explaining but he still talks about it! I’m working on not micromanaging artwork and crafts. It’s difficult for my type A perfectionist personality. But so important that they see themselves and me as creative and human. Humans make mistakes, even Moms 🙂

    • avatar janet says:

      It’s great to know this about yourself and kudos to you for being able to self-reflect. From there, you can do (or let go of) anything you set your mind to. You can do this!

  21. avatar Billy says:

    Thinking back to my childhood, the one costume I remember is the one I chose myself. As an 11 Year old Boy I dressed as “Little Red Rocking Hood”. My parents allowed me to rent a red caped outfit (I think it was a devil costume with a cape and I didn’t use the devil accents) and I carried a plastic guitar. I happily corrected everyone I met that I was “Little Red Rocking Hood” the whole day. I had one of the best Halloweens I can remember.

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