Four Ways to Have a Halloween Free of Tears — For Children Under Six

Halloween is a wacky, eccentric holiday. Here are some ways you can celebrate the festival if your child is under six years old

Melissa McElhill

Halloween is fun, but can only be fully appreciated by older children and adults. It draws on mature themes, such as death and the afterlife – and the costumes range from the strange to the outright morbid and explicitly violent.

Every year, many young children are reduced to tears during Halloween celebrations, as they are made to feel scared and uncomfortable. Why do we expose young children to a cultural event so beyond their experience and understanding of the world that it frightens them?

Why Halloween can be uncomfortably scary for children under six

While it isn't challenging for adults to distinguish between fantasy and reality, the young child finds it almost impossible. If you tell your three-year-old son about witches and vampires, he will think they’re real. Why? Because he doesn't yet know how to sort lies from truth. Since birth, his brain has been working tirelessly to construct a concept of reality by paying meticulous attention to the surrounding environment. You, as the adult, form an integral part of your child's environment, and so everything you say also goes into his mind as fact.

As the child gets older and gains more experience of the world, he will eventually consolidate his concept of reality and become more adept at separating fantasy from real life. This becomes clear when the child is around six or seven years old (it varies from child to child). Before then, when the child sees an adult in a full-blown Halloween costume — even an adult he knows — he's likely going to feel confused and intimidated. He might not have the words to express his feelings, but if he did, he'd say, "Something doesn't add up here, and it's making me feel deeply insecure."

This sounds doom and gloom, but it isn’t something we should lament. Young children are fascinated with adult life and want to know how the world works. They don’t need fantasy to make life more magical because life already is magical. You may have noticed your child's strong imagination and creativity, and so it is tempting to read him fairy tales and tell him stories about talking animals. Maria Montessori argued that this is a waste of his energies. Here you have a child with the mind of a scientist – constantly observing, experimenting, and craving real-world experiences; but instead of giving him useful facts about the world to fuel his ever-growing curiosity, we sometimes fill his mind with tall tales about princesses and giants, which have no real-world applications.

How to introduce a Halloween free of tears 

Knowing the young child craves to understand what is real, and is not yet ready for fantasy, means we can emphasize Halloween's real-life aspects. This is not to say that the ghouls and skeletons don’t enrich the Halloween experience, just that it’s too soon for young children to really appreciate and enjoy them. 

Here’s a list of ideas to introduce Halloween with greater emphasis on practical, age-appropriate festivities:

1) Read stories

Halloween comes at the end of autumn, so it has always been tied in with harvest celebrations. Check out this list of non-scary books below, which touch on the real-life parts of Halloween like harvesting pumpkins, carving jack-o’-lanterns, and making food for friends and family:

Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White is especially fun. The main character is a strong, independent woman who doesn’t like pumpkins because that’s all she ate as a girl, and so she became tired of them. She resists growing pumpkins on her farm until some seeds accidentally propagate on her land. She is then absolutely inundated with pumpkins at harvest time, just as she was when she was years ago, when she was a young child.

2) Pumpkin activities

Collect them – Head to your local pumpkin patch, where your young child can select and take home their very own pumpkin just for them. And maybe go through a corn maze and take a hayride while you're there!

Hammer them – There are many options for pumpkin carving with your young child. Naturally, what your child can do depends on their age and ability. If they are very young, you can introduce carving skills by hollowing out the pumpkin first, knocking in a cookie cutter part-way with a wooden mallet, and then letting your child finish the hammering themselves. You can place a candle inside when you're finished and see the cut-out shape glow in the dark. 

Carve them – If your child has experience using children’s knives (ones with serrated edges that aren’t razor sharp), he can then carve straight lines between each hole using a thin pumpkin carving knife. With you there to offer help when needed, your child can improve his motor skills and feel confident that he can help you complete a grown-up task.

3) Design a trick-or-treat route

If young children live in your neighborhood, you could coordinate a community trick-or-treat route with families where at least one caregiver stays at home to open the door and give the children candy.

With the level of communication required to organize the event, you’ve got the added benefit of making sure all the adults understand what it means to behave and dress appropriately on the night, for example, making sure no one opens the door wearing a frightening grim reaper mask!

4) Learn more about Halloween's origins and culture

Younger children are less likely to be interested in how Halloween began because the past is such an abstract concept, but when they do show an interest, there are some excellent books that introduce it in a child-friendly way. Try The Story of Halloween by Carol Greene.

For younger readers, there are books like Holidays Around the World by the National Geographic. Full of high-quality photos, children get to see how other children in countries across the globe celebrate significant events, like Halloween. Books like this one also help the young child build a sense of empathy as he learns that other people’s lives don’t necessarily resemble his own.

If you have a baby, you can read something aloud while he sleeps which is geared towards adults, such as Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton. You get to learn more about your own culture while your baby has the comfort of hearing you speak as well as the chance to absorb more of your language as he learns to speak himself.

Whether you choose to stay at home or socialize as a group this Halloween, don’t underestimate how incredibly important you are to your child and how much you shape their world. You are the one who will make this holiday fun for them. And as far as the activities you choose are concerned, you’ll know what your child wants and what they can handle based on how they react and what they show interest in. Have fun and stay safe!

Meet the Author

Melissa McElhill

Melissa is an AMI-certified educator who has taught children aged 10 weeks to 18 years old in the UK, US and China. She is also a qualified positive discipline parent coach, helping families integrate Montessori principles into their lives.