Halloween's message to children

Amid the pressure on kids to define their dreams quickly, Halloween still arrives each year with its invitation to free-for-all caprice.

As I mark my 10th Halloween as a father, I've come to understand the first parental principle of All Hallow's Eve: Don't buy your child's costume too early.

My wife and I learned that lesson the hard way some years ago, when our daughter, then 4, announced at autumn's arrival that she'd like to trick or treat as a clown.

So we bought the requisite red nose and fright wig before October had even appeared on the calendar.

But in the meantime, Eve flip-flopped, deciding that clowns were, in a word, dumb. No amount of cajoling would get her into the face paint and Bozo jumpsuit when the haunted holiday finally came. Instead, Eve opted to trick or treat as herself – a little girl with a mind stubbornly her own.

In subsequent seasons, we came not only to endure Halloween's fickleness of fashion, but to embrace it, allowing Eve and her younger brother, Will, to decide the evening's attire later rather than sooner.

Should we take the more sensible route, requiring our youngsters to commit to costumes on a prudent deadline? Maybe so. Yet Halloween seems to stand as one of the few rituals of childhood that still indulges silliness over solemn method, improvisation over the calculated plan.

Or so I was reminded the other day, when a mother recounting her child's rise as a violin prodigy turned to me and asked, "What do your children do?"

What she was seeking, I suppose, was something like the declaration of a major – a requirement once delayed until college, but which has increasingly come to shape the lives of the very young.

The fast track to maturity can begin as early as day care, as we try to cultivate our children's aptitudes into adult careers, their talents into a top spot at an Ivy League school.

But amid the pressure on kids to define their dreams quickly, Halloween still arrives each year with its invitation to free-for-all caprice.

So I've grown to welcome Halloween as the holiday when childhood is still something more than the first line on a résumé. Walking the costume aisle on one of several trips we'll make to the store in the hunt for a perfect disguise, I struggle to be patient as my children brainstorm alternate identities, masquerading as monsters or firemen, ballerinas or ballplayers, and trying on selves as casually as a wardrobe change.

What I'm trying to rediscover, as I bite my tongue and allow just one more rubber mask to migrate from the shopping cart back to the sales rack, is the central promise of Halloween and of childhood itself: There's still plenty of time for you to be anything you want to be.

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