“Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Swoosh! The boy swooped down from the monkey bars, his face smeared with fresh fake blood. He was wearing a long black cape. You could tell he liked the way the cape swung behind him. The other kids at the playground were dressed in normal clothes, busy building forts, while this boy was in full character of someone powerful and scary.
“Wow,” his mom said. “What a strong vampire!”
The boy jumped to the ground with a stern look. “I’m not a vampire. I’m Dracula,”
he said. His mother continued the banter, playing along, letting her child’s imagination soar even though it revolved around a negative character. I loved this mom who understood that we are all a mix of negative and positive, good and bad.
Sure, it makes some parents squeamish to see their little darlings dressed as bloodthirsty rulers of the dark. But imagination is a safe stage for children to explore and learn to manage negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness. Power playing is practice for real life in a scary world, a big world where small kids often feel powerless.
Negative emotions are a healthy part of good mental balance. There is such a thing as being too positive, when we are not allowed to express what we are truly feeling. Happiness is made stronger through experiencing sadness at times. Anger can be very healthy if the circumstances you are dealing with need to change. Fear can tell us something is wrong or what to avoid. All our emotions are good, as long as they have healthy outlets for expression.
Children have all these feelings, but often do not know what to do with them, especially since “good” behavior is stressed more than working through these complicated issues. Dramatic role playing is a good way for children to experience their darker feelings without guilt, shame or fear.
My five-year-old, Alessio, recently got enthralled by Darth Maul, a very bad guy. At first, I was uncomfortable at his switch from super heroes to super villains. But it’s a normal, healthy stage of development for children his age. Rather than tell him the first thing on my mind (“No, you can’t be Darth Maul for Halloween. He stinks.”), I said, “Why do you like him so much?”
“He’s strong and he would protect me. He always wins,” Alessio said.
“No, he doesn’t,” I said gently. “Darth wins sometimes. And the good guys lose sometimes, but they always win in the end and that’s what counts.”
Alessio thought about this. I was proud of him. He was trying to understand his fierce side, the good and bad of power, what protects us and what doesn’t. All important steps toward understanding life.
Our little talk was a rare opportunity to discuss things that often defy conversation. Did I say the right thing or the wrong thing? Who knows? A lot of good parenting is just listening and sowing seeds of understanding wherever you can. Allowing our children to explore uncomfortable emotions in a safe environment is a very good thing indeed.
Halloween is a holiday dedicated to making fun of our fears. So go ahead, get your fangs on and howl at the moon!