Don't Bubble-Wrap Your Kids

This year, I'm not seeing a lot of hand-wringing over the dangers of the occult during Halloween. Most of the Hallowangst of 2014 seems to be focused on how much cancer we are willing to give our kids via the delicious, delicious GMO toxins in the candy they get. My policy on that score is: I love my children so much, and am willing to sacrifice for them; so rather than exposing them to danger, I think they should give me all their candy.

Back to the occult. On the way to school, we pass a house which gets decorated a little bit more for Halloween each year. There are the typical Halloween decorations, like skeletons, spiders, vampires, and jack-o'-lanterns, all falling into the category of "spooky." This seems fine to me. You could either look at it as a healthy expression of a mortal soul's desire to laugh in the face of death, as a way of robbing it of its terror. Or you could just go, "Ooh, it's the spooky time of year! Fun! Candy."

But this particular house crosses the line, and there are several handmade lawn decorations which aren't Halloweeny at all; they're just . . . death-y. There is, for instance, a full-size wooden guillotine, splattered with red paint and ready for action, complete with a basket to receive the severed heads. There is also a full-size electric chair, placed invitingly on the front lawn and also inexplicably splattered with red paint (which makes me think that the owners of the house played hooky on the day the teacher explained electricity).

Our kids know this is weird for your front lawn to have a "Yay, death!" theme. We've talked about it, and they get that there is a difference between indulging in a few thrills and chills once a year, and throwing yourself into a month-long celebration of human agony. And we've talked about how one attitude can turn into the other if you spend too much time and energy indulging. 

My son, who is twelve, recently wanted to buy a comic book, and as he leafed through the pages, he liked the story, but was disturbed by some of the gory images he saw. The comic book guy reassured him that he would get used to it over time. And I agreed. Sure, you can get used to it, and eventually it wouldn't even bother you any more. But why would you want to do that to yourself?

What I told my son is that people are like trees. If they get everything they need, they grow tall and straight and bear fruit. If there are adverse conditions, like a constant strong wind or not much space, they will often still grow big and strong, but they might look a little odd -- crooked or slanted or top heavy. There is still fine, because they are still trees, still healthy, and still doing what they were made to do. 

But you can also take a tree when it is young, and start doing strange things to it. You can twist it, and tie its branches into unnatural shapes, and splice branches together, and gradually, gradually, so as not to break the wood, make it into a shape that it would never become in nature. And yes, it's still a tree. But there is something unnerving about something that has been tormented, while it is still alive, into looking like something else. 

When this happens to a literal tree, it's just a curiosity. But when it happens to a person, that's another story. I told my son that he is like a young tree, and his fiber is still pretty flexible. He has the choice about what kind of influences will shape him. It's very possible to become malformed while you are still young, if you consistently expose yourself to twisting and binding and unnatural shaping of various kinds. Being used to it doesn't make it better!

We're starting to let my son make more of his own choices, because someday, we won't be there at all. We're trying to encourage all of our kids to get used to the idea that they are in charge of what kind of adults they become. One way to do this is to give them a little freedom. And this can be scary, for kids and for their parents.

A few weeks ago, one of those temporary Halloween stores opened in town, and of course the boys were raring to check it out. So we went in, me with some reservations. There was the usual array: silly stuff, funny stuff, spooky stuff, sexy stuff, wigs, weapons, zombies . . . and then, as we went further back into the store, things started to get weird. There were more and more things that you'd only think of, as a costume or decoration designer, if you were one of those "twisted trees" whose mind had been working exclusively through peculiar channels for many years. When we got up to the lawn decoration of an illuminated baby zombie made of two baby halves sewn coarsely together and trying to crawl in opposite directions, my son had had enough. I didn't have to tell him it was time to get out of there. He wanted out!

I was proud of him. He didn't want anything to do with stuff like that. And I was proud of myself and my husband, because we've had so many conversations with our kids about this kind of thing -- which things are off limits for everyone, which are okay for adults but not kids, which are okay only in small doses, and which are okay for some people but not for others. We never show them a movie without first thinking it through, and we always talk about what we've seen. We give them a lot of guidance, and we put our feet down when we need to; but we know that our job is to teach them to protect themselves. 

So parents, be careful with your kids, but don't bubble-wrap them. They need to learn how to make these choices for themselves, and they only way they will learn is if you let them.