Skip to main content

Parents, don't be Hallo-weenies

By Jeff Pearlman, Special to CNN
October 31, 2013 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
This locally famous "haunted house" is on one of the busiest streets in Beijing. Now that Halloween has rolled around, locals are flocking to the century-old building for seasonal thrills. This locally famous "haunted house" is on one of the busiest streets in Beijing. Now that Halloween has rolled around, locals are flocking to the century-old building for seasonal thrills.
HIDE CAPTION
Building no. 81
Caution: This place is haunted. Maybe
Sound effect-equipped
What phantom wouldn't want to live here?
The ghosts of bureaucracy
Halloween's popularity grows in Beijing
Scared yet?
Not everything is authentic
House of birthday horrors
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Pearlman: Daughter feared roller coaster, rode it, loved it. Same with Halloween scares
  • He says parents should let their kids get a little terrified at Halloween. It's good for them
  • Parents should support, explain, use heads on appropriateness but not overly shield
  • Pearlman: Kids can confront fear, emerge feeling proud, brave. We coddle too much

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman blogs at jeffpearlman.com. His most recent book is "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton." Follow him on twitter @jeffpearlman.

(CNN) -- It's Halloween, and I'm here to tell you to scare your kids fearlessly. It's good for them. First, a story.

Early last summer, my 9-year-old daughter and I took a trip to Hershey Park.

Casey loves roller coasters (we first tackled Great Adventure's Nitro and its blinding 80-mph speed when she was 4). But vertical plunges? No.

That day I repeatedly asked her whether she'd like to try Fahrenheit, a coaster that (egad) ascends 121 feet before plummeting down a (double egad) 97-degree drop. She'd shake her head, "No." Once she overcame the fear and took the plunge, I thought, genuine euphoria would ensue. Finally, I made an offer.

"Casey," I said, "if you go on Fahrenheit, I'll let you play three games and buy you a soda (banned in our household).

"OK," she said, gulping. "I'll do it." When the attendant locked down the protective bar, tears appeared.

"I don't want to do this," she said. More tears.

"Daddy, I don't want to do this." Onlookers began to stare.

"Honey, are you OK?" an employee asked. "Do you need to get off?"

"Nooooo," Casey said, still crying. "No."

Jeff Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman

The ride started to move. Up. Up. Up. Straight up, staring into the blue Pennsylvania sky.

"Daddy, noooooooo," Casey wailed. "Daddy, I can't do this ... Daddddddddyyyyyyyyy ..."

I was the worst father in history.

We began our steep downward plunge. I turned to look at Casey. She was grinning, ear to ear.

"Whoooooooooooooooo!" she screamed. "This! Is! Awesome! This! Is! Awesome!"

It was.

As yet another October 31 approaches, I've been thinking a lot about Casey and Fahrenheit and the virtues of a scared tyke. Last weekend, at my children's elementary school, the wife and I organized a Halloween party that included, for the first time, a haunted house. The fare was pretty typical: a man in a Michael Myers mask reaching out toward people, a cemetery filled with zombies, a crazy chef cooking guts and eyeballs. It was held in a dark hallway and despite that was clearly more about fun than fear.

Yet one after another, parents questioned me about whether their 6-to-11-year-old tykes were ready for a fright, whether perhaps being too scared would create some sort of enduring mental impairment that could haunt their dreams (and ruin their Harvard futures). I wasn't merely asked whether the house was scary. I was asked whether Junior could "handle it."

"He might flinch a little," I'd say. "But he can handle it."

Street smarts for trick-or-treating
See Chris Cuomo's Halloween outfit
Campus cracks down on costumes

Some turned away angrily. Others silently walked off. About 400 kids took the plunge. Some cried at the end, but only a few.

Truth is, sometimes kids need to be scared. Pushed. Coerced. And forced to try things that might feel uncomfortable or awkward or even terrifying. But, handled right, can also allow them to emerge feeling proud, brave and accomplished.

"Children are resilient by nature," said Tammy Regnet, a prevention specialist in the Buffalo, New York, public school system. "As long as there's some support available, they can bounce back from difficult experiences without much trouble."

In her work, Regnet is part of a team that takes inner-city children to a ropes course in the woods. There's a zipline, and it's high and long and daunting.

"The kids have to be pulled up, and when they're ready to stop they yell out, 'OK, stop now!'" said Regnet. "But we always say, 'Are you sure you don't want to go a bit further?' We try and talk them into it, because the goal is to have them experience life. Without crossing a comfort line, that's hard to do."

Are there limitations? Surely, said Vanessa Taback, a psychologist with the Yonkers public school system. In New York parents should already be cued into their kid's emotional readiness.

"It's not about age," Taback said. And then there is common sense: "What you need to be aware of is what's developmentally appropriate. Blood and guts flying out from the ceiling atop a 6-year old probably isn't the best thing."

Then again, she said, "At least if a parent is there, it can explained and grasped. Children can be very concrete. So they need an outlet to discuss these things. Haunted houses can be a lot of fun for young kids. So can Halloween. But it's valuable to have an adult nearby."

Halloween is about candy and masks, but it's also about crossing that comfort line: a crazy day when a kid can stroll through a haunted house, ring a doorbell and see the unfamiliar face of someone who gives him or her candy, talk about ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. It should be a little scary; let them handle it.

More than ever, parents today seem obsessively determined to do more than merely observe and (if needed) explain. We unnecessarily hold our kids back a year of school in the name of "getting ahead." We present every member of every youth team with a season-ending medal, even if they went 0-11 and scored -23 goals. We kick off the school year by demanding principals place our precious darlings with just the right teacher in just the right environment with just the right classmates. We coddle and comfort and make certain no step will be taken without a fluffy pillow to fall back upon.

Well, to hell with that. Unless your child is absolutely petrified beyond belief (like, ahem, my son), find the nearest haunted house, plunk down the $20 and take your children for the most frightening little walk of their lives.

Then watch as they scream their heads off -- and rave about it right after.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT