Why I Let My Children Play in the Dark

Why I Let My Children Play in the Dark

One of my favorite Disney movies when I was growing up (not counting “The Parent Trap”), was a lesser known thriller called “Watcher in the Woods”. The 1980’s film was just the right kind of terrifying and I loved it. No gore. No blood. No one getting severely hurt. No one dying. No knives or chainsaws. Even so, the camera action making it look as though someone was constantly watching the new residents of the house in the forest still made me cover my head with a blanket and peer out of a slit of an opening.

I have always loved a little fright and Halloween is my happy place. I remember being a little girl trying to decorate the front porch of our house all on my own. I had grand visions of using my tiny “boom box” to play a tape cassette with recordings of “ghost sounds” wooo-ing as trick-or-treaters arrived at our door. Unfortunately, little Emily was about as tech savvy as adult Emily so that vision was never actualized.

I loved dressing up. I still do. I love making bones out of pretzel sticks, marshmallows and white chocolate. I love making mummy meatloaf and ghost mashed potatoes. I am sure Halloween is the only time I drive by a house with partial skeletons sticking out of the ground and say: “Oh, how cute!”

I know not everyone feels this way. I have had friends express their distaste for Halloween. I can appreciate their objections. It has forced me to do some hard thinking about my own love for it. Is there something wrong with me? Am I secretly dark and twisted? (Don’t answer that…)

So, here is my why. Here is why I let my kids play in the scary darkness of this season…maybe why I think it is important to let kids play in the dark… and why I think I enjoy it so much myself, too.

I let my kids play in the dark because play gives us power.

We see this demonstrated with kids when they are in play therapy. When a child is allowed to choose his or her figures and act out scenes from life alongside a trained, sensitive, attentive adult, they discover internal resources and new ways of thinking about a story that has been painful or scary. A child often will act out versions of the same scene in therapy over the course of a few weeks and each time the story changes slightly as the child is able to hold the figures, talk for the figures, and decide how he or she wants the story to evolve.

I let my kids play in the dark because play helps us find our voice.

Last weekend we visited a “Halloween maze” that one of our neighbors had crafted outside of their home. Actually, it was pretty spooky. To be honest my two middle kids handle these scary situations (and roller coasters) way better than I do. They have learned something that my son so beautifully articulated when he came out of the maze: “Just say hi to them and it isn’t scary anymore.” When we learn to look at and speak to those things in our lives that are scary and hard, we learn that we have a voice that is important and useful. Using that voice reminds us that we are stronger and more capable than we had realized…and that scary things are rarely as scary as they seem in the dark, quiet recesses of our minds. Call them out. Greet them out loud. It isn’t so scary anymore.

I let my kids play in the dark because play helps us learn to take risks.

By now most of us have heard of the idea of developing a “growth mindset” as opposed to having a “fixed mindset”. Having a growth mindset means seeing failure and hard as normal parts of developing a skill. A “fixed mindset” sees life as either right or wrong with failure as final…and therefore terrifying. Playing in the dark and learning to be curious about scary things helps us to remember that we often will find things hard in this life. When we do we sometimes find ourselves getting jammed up and rigid about the situation, which then results in shutting down. Learning to tolerate the discomfort of being wrong, being bad at something…being AFRAID…is an incredibly useful skill as an adult. Fear and nervousness needs to be normalized for our kids. Emotions are things to experience, to look at and to learn from. We can learn to listen to our emotions without being led by them. As adults we make progress, we heal, we love, we learn…all when we take risks. Risk taking often…no ALWAYS…involves things like fear and insecurity. These emotions are not usually a sign that something needs to be avoided. To be sure, fear can hold wisdom. Theses emotions give information for us to notice and learn from as we lean into growth.

I let my kids play in the dark because play reminds us that we are messy humans and messy humans are magical, inconsistent, complex, creative, imperfect, beautiful creatures.  

I can hear my Christian friends arguing about the origins of Halloween. I have heard the stories. Here’s the thing. Halloween has the meaning I put into it based on my context in history, in my culture, and in my personal story. Christians for centuries have been deciding meaning based on cultural appropriation and personal experience. I have heard that Christmas was chosen as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ because it most closely aligned with a pagan holiday already being observed. Same for Easter. People say that the idea of saints were created to “compete” with the Greek gods and goddesses being worshipped in Rome at the time. We align our faith systems with the world around us all the time in order to be relevant and to relate. People sometimes tell these stories as if there is something sinister about the idea of relating to our current culture. If you are a Christian, we know that the most beautiful thing about Christ is that He is Emmanuel…God WITH us. His life was incarnational…deity with skin on…with HUMANITY under His finger nails. Likewise, our faith is incarnational…there isn’t much that we do that isn’t covered in the dust of our human experience. And, we know what Jesus does with dust. He creates life out of it. He spits in it and uses it for healing.

I let my kids play in the dark because we learn best through play.

            My first-grade teacher loved to interject silliness into our learning routine. She knew that if we were too serious we would not learn well. To this day, when I am struggling to understand something or do a dreaded task I try to think about the process as play. I like to play with new ideas, play with conceptualizing at work, play with new strategies…playing helps us to take a deep breath and not be afraid of something that seems hard or intimidating. Sometimes, as parents we struggle in this space. We want to rescue our kids from hard things…thinking through new ideas, developing a plan, taking on a responsibility. We rescue by doing it for them, which, to be honest, ends up being easier and less scary to us, too. We think for them, tell them what to believe, show them exactly how to do something…or maybe even do it for them. It takes a lot more time and energy to be playful with what is hard and scary…to relax and consider the options…to wonder what is really behind that “mask”. If we prevent them from doing this work of “playing” with hard and scary they will always run from spooky masks. Ironically, we end up making the masks MORE real. I know we want to protect our children, but I promise that good parenting is not ALWAYS protective. You can protect your child right out of growth opportunities.

Of course, there are things to consider. Temperament. Sensitivities. Age appropriateness. Yes, yes, yes. As parents we journey with our children, we know them, and we learn the best we can when to push and when to pace with our kids. Halloween totally may not be your kid’s thing. Please, don’t force it.

Finally, I let my kids play in the dark because it is FUN.

Most importantly, I think we have forgotten how just to BE. Be happy, be outside, be in relationship with our neighbors as we walk around pulling the wagon with the four-year-old whose legs no longer want to walk the distance between doors. We don’t have to figure it out. We don’t even have to come up with a “why”. Did you know that? Did you know that you can just enjoy something because it brings you delight? Seriously. It is true. You don’t have to overthink everything. I promise.

I would love to know your why, too, but you know what? I don’t want you to overthink this one more minute. Go have fun. Get spooked with your kids and laugh. Giggle and give lots of hugs. Happy Halloween, my friends.