With Halloween approaching, the holiday season begins to heat up. As each one draws near, think ahead and plan: What do you want your children...

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With Halloween approaching, the holiday season begins to heat up.

As each one draws near, think ahead and plan: What do you want your children to experience and learn? What values and virtues will your kids take away once the celebratory activities end? How will the commemorative events benefit your children’s development? Let’s start with Halloween. More than other holidays, Halloween, with all the possible costumes (including some scary imaginative witches and goblins), plays most effectively into the imaginative lives of children.

Young children create fearful images inside their own heads. Then these imaginative creatures pop up behind doors, in closets and under beds. The line between fantasy and reality is fine. By putting on and taking off wicked-looking costumes, children are more able to distinguish between what’s real and what’s pretend, and thus control the frightening images that appear in their imaginations.

Halloween can help children overcome their fears or, if adults get carried away dressing up in scary costumes themselves or forcing a reluctant child into a haunted house, children can become more fearful.

It’s best to let kids drive Halloween activities with a thoughtful parent making sure the events are about “kid fun” with an overriding positive long-term effect.

If a child says, “Take that goblin costume off, Daddy,” do so.

If a child cries at a Halloween party because he’s afraid of all the costumed people in the room, leave. Let kids put costumes and masks on and off, over and over. It puts them in control to manage the amount of scary experiences right for them.

Some children choose superhero costumes, becoming Batman, Spiderman or Wonder Girl. By being these characters, they can pretend to overpower the fearful characters in their minds. Then there are the princesses and knights, who try on for days or weeks the persona of people they’ve seen in books, movies and on TV. If you have a Cinderella or Peter Pan, you can offer messages yearlong to promote or deter these characters from becoming embedded in your child’s personality.

Then there’s the candy fantasy. Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa give treats. At some point, little ones might think, “There must be homes in my neighborhood where people have sweets. I’ll go around the neighborhood and knock on doors and ask for goodies.” Good thinking but, of course, Mom and Dad won’t allow it except for the one day a year when the fantasy is acted out in neighborhoods and now, for safety’s sake, shopping malls and even banks and businesses.

The structure of the holiday can help children control their intake of sweets or promote problems such as hoarding or sneaking treats from others. It all depends on parental management.

Thanksgiving is a day to focus on the virtue of gratitude but, depending on how it’s played out, children can witness gluttony instead. What rituals, traditions and messages will you provide so your children acquire a grateful attitude? Will they value family games or football games?

Giving presents for Christmas and Hanukkah provides another avenue to satisfy children’s fantasies. Children make wishes, then presents arrive. From there, depending on parents’ orchestration, children can turn greedy or into givers themselves. They can learn about the religious origins of the holiday or about consumerism, marketing and advertising.

Whatever the holiday — patriotic, religious or historical — make sure the take-away lessons are truly the ones you want your children to learn. When you’re in the middle of cooking a holiday meal, it’s difficult to step back and ask, “What are my children truly learning? Is a hidden agenda coming across louder and stronger than what I’m intending?” Try to realize what lasting impressions the celebration is making, as your children will carry them into the next generation.

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at janfaull@aol.com or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists