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
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