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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT