Halloween: Why Kids Need Scary Stories

Scared to read a spooky story to your kids? Don’t be! Heather Shumaker, author of the brilliant book It’s Okay Not To Share explains why monsters and not-so-happy endings are good for kids. Thanks, Heather, for this great guest post:

Last week we checked the Legend of Sleepy Hollow out of the library. I realized my kids didn’t know the story, and the spooky Headless Horseman is so captivating that I was eager to share this American classic.

On the drive home, my four-year-old looked at the pictures while I retold the story aloud. Midway through, I stopped. How did this version end? When the sinister Horseman hurls the pumpkin, does Ichabod Crane still die? The original story has a dire end: all that’s left is poor Ichabod’s hat. Did this picture book version change things to protect kids and “pretty up” the ending?

Kids need monsters, bad guys and sad endings in their books. Not every story should end with the hero dying, of course, but those that do are especially powerful. When the fox snaps up the Gingerbread Boy, it’s fascinating to kids. And realistic. The natural behavior of the fox is to eat its prey. The story doesn’t shield kids from the consequence of foolishness.

Trolls and ogres persist because they have a rightful place. First, storybook monsters make the story exciting–hugely important for kids to gain a love of reading. They also present a powerful obstacle. The troll under the bridge in the Three Billy Goats Gruff is a worthy adversary. Kids learn that tough, scary trolls may bar the way, but even trolls can be overcome with perseverance and cleverness.

Kids have all sorts of monsters to face in real life – from monsters under the bed to challenges and fears as they grow. For some fears come in the form of big dogs, school or thunderstorms.  At this time of year, Halloween masks and costumes may scare young kids (even if the outfit is a cheerful clown suit). These fears are legitimate and intensely real. Exposing kids to scary pictures or movies can make fears worse—visual images are so intense—but telling stories can help.  Stories with monsters frequently depict a brave hero who soldiers on through all difficulties–modeling traits of persistence and the courage to confront fears.

Stories are a safe way for children to grapple with fears, understand the world and explore morals and emotions. Hearing sad stories (Charlotte’s Web, Old Yeller, The Red Balloon) touches our hearts, builds empathy, and makes us all more deeply human. Bad endings help us understand the world. They teach resilience. It’s good for kids to learn that misfortune is part of life, that problems are normal and happen to everyone, and that sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to.

So this Halloween, embrace those monsters. Read a story or two which doesn’t end happily ever after. And let imaginations take off when they hear about Ichabod Crane’s hat and the end of his wild ride.

What were your favorite non-happy ending stories?  Would you change those endings for your kids now?

Heather Shumaker is the author of It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids . She blogs about writing and renegade parenting at Starlighting Mama.

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  1. by Evening Feeding: This Halloween, Embrace The Monsters

    On October 31, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    [...] Why kids need scary stories. (Parents.com) [...]