The Annual Halloween Dilemma

Several of you have written me asking me to write about Halloween costumes. I am just back from five days away at a conference (I will share some about my paper soon!) so I am behind at work, but wanted to take a quick minute to touch on this topic, as I know many, many families are dealing with it.

Here, in a nutshell, is the bind. Your son sees all the fabulous costumes and says, “I want to be Belle!” or your daughter can’t wait to rock out a muscle-bound Hulk costume. You might think it’s easier for girls to cross that line than boys — and maybe that’s true overall — but check out this video of a recent “What Would You Do” episode when they sent kids into a costume store and other shoppers tried to talk them out of their “gender-inappropriate” choices:

This is informative to watch if you don’t have a gender non-conforming kid; it’s painful to watch if you do. Here are the things we’re afraid of confirmed – people won’t understand, they will mock or make fun, they’ll worry our kid is gay, they’ll blame us for not “nipping it in the bud.”

For what it’s worth, here is my two cents of experience and advice. First some general opinions, and then what we do at our house.

1) Know that, for some kids, Halloween is a time to (finally!) get to break out. Especially, it seems, for younger kids, it’s often the moment when they push to be allowed to go as a princess or a wrestler. But for other kids, they will refuse to express their true selves; even if they are telling you how much they want to be a girl/boy, they will refuse to wear a costume that even approaches pushing the limit. That’s just how it is – your kid is operating from a complex intuitive understanding of lots of factors including safety, group acceptance, personal comfort and expression, extroversion/introversion, etc. Our son has wanted to be a robot the last three years – which expresses a different authentic part of his character, the part that wants to be an inventor. Now that we have actually made some local friends with fluidly gendered kids who we’ll see at Halloween, I found myself saying this year, “Are you sure you don’t want to be a scary princess?!” I knew I was thinking, “Come on, kid! This is your chance!” But that’s just not where he is right now.

2) If your child is adamant for being out of the box, please rethink advocating for compromise. It is almost never satisfying to your kid. I have done this so many times – how about a kilt? It’s a skirt for boys! How about a wizard? They have long robes like dresses! Give it up – they know the difference. First, evaluate how much of your concern is due to realistic likelihood of teasing or tormenting and how much is your own personal discomfort or fear of embarrassment. (And if you’ve never seen Ma Vie en Rose, go rent it.) If your child is giving you a clear message about what s/he wants to be, respect it.

Some possibilities: Have a conversation with your child about likely reactions (especially if they’re young and haven’t dealt with questions or teasing much before). People might ask you why you’re wearing this costume when you’re a boy/girl. Will that bother you? How would you like to respond? Rather than trying to negotiate about what the costume will be, negotiate about when and where it gets worn. If they costume at school and you don’t think it will be safe, maybe a toned down version can be worn to school and the full-on version worn to trick-or-treat. Or we have used a costume from the dress-up box at home (like the wizard) for one event and saved our ingenuity and crafting time for the night-time costume. If you honestly feel your neighborhood won’t be safe to trick-or-treat in, find a different neighborhood! Where are all the Obama yard signs? Where do your gay friends live? You can figure it out – there is almost always somewhere you can go that will give your kid a “real” experience of trick-or-treating with folks who are cool. (Or where folks don’t know you and will just assume your kid’s gender matches their costume and think nothing of it.) Talk to the community ahead of time – if you’re going to a party, let folks know: “Hey, my kid is coming as a gladiator/witch, and I hope you’ll tell them how cool they look! They’re a little worried folks will laugh, but I assured them that y’all wouldn’t. Can’t wait to see you tomorrow night!”

3) If you’re worried about “what it means,” let it go. If your kid is gay, your kid is gay. Letting him wear a dress at Halloween or letting her wear fake muscles is not going to make him/her gay. You can’t change reality, folks. All you have the power to do is let your kids know you have their backs and you think they are awesome, amazing, and valuable. Or to let them know you don’t.

4) See if you can find out some places that engage in creative costuming, either in your town or online, so they can see that other people do get out of the box. I know kids who wear themselves on their sleeves at all times, and other kids who are terrified to let others know who they really are (and are miserable about it). It is so helpful to know that you’re not alone – to see yourself reflected in the larger world. (Maybe we need an online photo gallery of best kids’ gender non-conforming costumes!!)

Now for what we do at our house – I don’t intend this as prescriptive. I know everyone has different kids, different surroundings, and different choices, and I respect that. But especially for those of you with young kids, this might offer some food for thought.

1) In our house, Halloween costumes have to be scary. We stick to the original meaning of the holiday drawn from the Celtic Samhain (pronounced Sah-win or Sow-in), that it’s a time when the borders between our world and the other world are thin. The religious connection is that it comes before All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, when we remember those who have died, and historically, when the spirits of your ancestors come to visit. (See Dios de los Muertos or Day of the Dead in Mexico.)

The reason for dressing up was, alternately, to try to scare away bad spirits from your house to make it easier for your ancestors to find you, or to make them think that your house was already inhabited by bad spirits so they’d move on to bother others. It’s a lovely thing, to remember your loved ones who have passed — sometimes we make altars and put up their pictures and decorate. Sometimes we get too busy but at least try to have prayers and tell our kids stories about those who have passed. I think it helps kids deal with death as part of life, and it helps pull Halloween out of the commercialized frenzy into which it has descended. And that leads to . . .

2) We don’t do characters. No Hulk, no Spiderman, no Disney princess. If our kids wanted to be a character badly enough, they’d have to at least construct the costume themselves. This is our rule not only at Halloween, but all the time. I know it’s hard for many parents of boys, who have felt that their sons are so constrained from expressing themselves that they buy them every Disney princess costume to wear at home, etc. Every family needs to make its own choices. For us, in addition to being our personal value, it also seems helpful in breaking down binary gender construction. If my son isn’t a typical boy, and the solution is to dress him as a hyper-feminized, stereotypical girl (who is often also sexualized – see below), what kind of message is that sending about the possibilities of space between?

3) We believe in age-appropriate expressions of sexuality. Neither one of our kids – boy or girl – gets to wear make-up, high heels, or sexy clothes. Again, it’s our personal value. And again, I know that it’s hard for many parents of boys – for me, I don’t want my daughter to believe that she is an primarily an object of sexualized desire . . . and I don’t want my son to think so, either.

What that means for us at Halloween is that short skirts, heels, Disney princesses, and pre-made identities are off the table for starters. It’s great to see what the kids come up with instead. This year, our daughter wants to be a Spider Girl. Not in any relation to Spider Man, who she doesn’t really know, but her own conception of a powerful spider witch that can shoot spiders out of her wand. Cool! It also means they can blame mom and dad for some of their non-conformity — “Dude, why are you a witch when you’re a boy?” “Well, in our family, costumes have to be scary, and what’s scarier than a witch?!” And frankly, I feel more comfortable with my son being an evil fairy than a (sexy) character from Monster High – part of what makes people uncomfortable about our kids is that they conflate gender with sex and thinking about sex and children together freaks them out. So separating a female gendered costume from sexual signals seems to decrease others’ discomfort.

Hey! I’m interested in hearing how you cope, what your best costumes have been, and other Halloween ideas. And if you have a picture that doesn’t show your child’s face that you’d like to share with us, go to the Contact link on About Me and send it to me (ONLY if it’s ok to post it here). Happy Halloween!

This entry was posted in Clothing, Holidays, Parenting, The boy box, The girl box, What You Can Do and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Annual Halloween Dilemma

  1. Sarah says:

    Thank you for your post. It helped me make the decision to allow my 4 yo son to wear the mermaid costume that he really wanted to wear. I had been leaning toward having him wear a slightly more gender neutral purple witch/wizard homemade costume, but he had his heart set on a glitzy store bought mermaid number. I was originally going with the excuse that the mermaid outfit would be too cold. But when I read your post, I decided to let him have his wish and found some matching long underwear for him to put on underneath. I’m so glad I did. He was ecstatic that I had found a way to make the outfit warm, and was just skipping with joy and pride in his costume. And much to my relief, not one single odd look was given or snide comment was made to him all night. (Thanks liberal California attitudes!)

  2. Pingback: Halloween: When the princess is the elephant in the room | Pink Is for Boys

  3. John Wallop says:


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