Parents, you’ve got this! Talking to your kids about appropriate Halloween costumes

Halloween Silhouettes (Picture Courtesy BigStock)

Halloween Silhouettes (Picture Courtesy BigStock)

If you’re a Gen X parent like me, and grew up in the 70s or 80s, you likely remember the three ways that you got your Halloween costume when you were growing up: 1) You had a crafty parent or Grandma who made your costumes; 2) You got to choose from the 5-6 plastic mask costumes available at the local drug store; 3) You went Charlie Brown style and cut eyes in an old sheet. Oh, if you were a younger sibling, you might have gotten a hand-me-down costume, that didn’t quite fit.

Times, as we all know, have changed. Our kids, who can’t believe that we used to talk on a phone that was actually connected to a cord in a wall, are lured by the Halloween super pop-up stores that show up in July; they look up costume ideas on their tablets and iphones and know that we can order these often overpriced outfits with a click of a button.

I love Halloween—carving pumpkins, decorating and picking out costumes for my beloved yellow lab. Yes, I am the lady in line at Walgreens on November 1st who’s filled my basket with bags of discounted candy corn.

But I started noticing that as my daughter, now 12, got older, the formerly fun activity of picking out her costume became harder to navigate. So many choices aimed at tween girls in particular felt overly sexual to me and gave me the creeps for the wrong reasons. I caved in one year and bought a “witch” costume that had way too much lace and not enough cloth. Luckily, a t-shirt underneath made it feel okay for a ten-year-old sorceress.

I started thinking more about my discomfort—and have spent the last few weeks unpacking it, talking with other parents, some who have kids between ages 9-13-years old now and some experienced parents with wonderful adult children who reflected back on what worked for them when their kids were growing up.

I started thinking more about my discomfort—and have spent the last few weeks unpacking it, talking with other parents, some who have kids between ages 9-13-years old now and some experienced parents with wonderful adult children who reflected back on what worked for them when their kids were growing up.

What I take away from their wisdom is that as with any challenge that comes up in our parenting, picking out a Halloween costume is an opportunity for a productive conversation. Here are five takeaways for framing the conversation:

  1. Just Say No: In recent years, there’s been more conversation about how many “traditional” Halloween costumes are based in racial or ethnic stereotypes: the sexy geisha, the drunk mariachi player, etc. When you’re thinking about Halloween costumes with your kids, a clear guideline is to avoid any costume that is racist or perpetuating an ethnic stereotype. Here is a great video clip that MTV from a couple of years that’s still very current in its unpacking of some of those offensive costumes. (Warning: Don’t read the comments).
  2. Use Your Imagination: I heard from a number of parents who were truly thankful that their kids were into “nerdy” books/comics/movies and not interested in commercially-sold costumes at all. That made me wonder why I never asked my daughter, who loves to read, if she’d like to be a character from a favorite book. You don’t have to be a seamstress to make an imaginative costume—visit a thrift store or check for items you need on Etsy. Guess what? The 80s is now retro-cool so if you’ve kept any clothes from your childhood, they might come in handy. One mom gave her daughter her old Girl Scout uniform which paired with zombie make-up, was the perfect thing for “Zombie Girl Scout. “
  3. Set the Budget: Today’s costumes can be expensive! Planning your costume can be an opportunity to talk about saving and spending. Share with your child what you think is a reasonable amount of money to spend on a Halloween costume. If he/she disagrees, encourage them to think about inexpensive ways to create elements of the costume—what could be borrowed or made? Found in Grandma’s attic? If he/she insists on a costume that’s more money than you’ve budgeted, ask him/her to contribute allowance or savings.
  4. A Family Affair: I loved hearing from a number of families who shared that even as their kids got older, they still dressed as a different theme each year and sometimes invited the kids’ friends to be part of the theme with their family. There’s no telling how long our kids will think we’re cool, but if we show that we’re creative and like to have fun, they may want to hang out with us a little bit longer.
  5. Talk About the Message: One mom I spoke with is really excited that her daughter, who is 11, is going to be Wonder Woman. She just wonders why a Wonder Woman tween costume has to show so much skin. One parent reported that when her daughter was four and wanted to be a mermaid, the only costumes that they could find had bikini (sea shell) tops. As our girls get older, let’s talk with them about the kinds of costumes that are featured for girls. This year, my daughter is going to be a “Devil.” We looked at pictures of girl devils with really short tight skirts and pictures of boy devils wearing long pants. We talked about how that felt weird and she agreed she’d be fine wearing pants as long as she had a really cool red cape, tail, horns and pitchfork. (Yes, I went way over my budget once again).

Those conversations may change as our daughters get older and begin to experiment with different kinds of fashion and looks. Parenting expert Marjorie Ingall, author of Mamaleh Knows Best invites mothers to think about their daughters costume choices before vetoing them. “For me NOT shaming a kid for wanting to celebrate her body is the ultimate goal,” Ingall says. “I would want to know WHY the mom does not want the kid in a slutty costume. Is it about the kid’s safety? Where is she going? Is she really at risk? Of course I would have a conversation about inappropriate touching and the grossness of leering, and I would not BUY a kid a slutty costume, but if a kid has her own money, and buys it, I’m not sure I’d forbid her from leaving the house.”

I’d love to hear about how you navigate the Halloween costume discussion in your home. Please share your experiences in the comments below. And Happy Halloween!



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