I Scare Kids For a Living. Here’s How I Decide What Spooky Stuff My Child Watches.
Adam Gidwitz, acclaimed author of 'A Tale Dark & Grimm', explains why parents should empower their kids to choose what scares them.
“Uhh… should she be watching that?”
It’s a question parents ask each other all the time. But how do we know the answer? Especially with Halloween rolling around — even familiar shows will be taking on a darker hue… and kids might be holding their comfort objects a little tighter.
I must admit upfront: In this struggle, I am your friend — and also your enemy. I am a parent of a five-year-old girl who does not like to be scared. I am also a creator of scary content for kids — books, a podcast, and now an animated show on Netflix. As someone who lives on both sides of this divide, who can see over the wall and into the enemy camp, I’ve got a few suggestions.
As a parent, it can be really hard to predict what will scare my daughter and what won’t. In the Disney movie Tangled, the villain Mother Goethel manipulates Rapunzel in disturbing and upsetting ways — and then stabs Rapunzel’s love interest in the kidney. She’s a terrifying sociopath, and she really wigs me out. My kid? Doesn’t bother her at all. But when, in the Disney movie Brave, the main character’s mom turns into a bear? Nightmares for days. How could I have predicted that?
I couldn’t have. And actually… I don’t think I should try.
Before you start howling, “Of course it’s your job! You’re her father! What kind of monster are you?”, let me get something out of the way first:
I believe in setting certain parameters — I am not the kind of dad that just lets my kid find whatever she wants to on YouTube (I’m not trying to explain slenderman to my five year old). I have certain content providers, and certain rating systems, that I trust. Anything on PBS Kids is fine. Anything rated G, or TV-Y, on Disney or Netflix Kids or a handful of others. Your boundaries might be different — which is totally okay. We’re all raising different kids.
Okay, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, I’ll say it: Within the boundaries I’ve set, it’s not my job to decide whether my kid should be watching something. It’s hers.
I have a deep and abiding belief that kids know what they need. When your kid was little, did they ask for the same book a hundred thousand trillion times? Until you wanted to return your child to the public library, along with the book? And then, one day, weren’t they like, “No!” And they pretty much never wanted to see that book again, except occasionally out of some weird toddler nostalgia? Your kid was doing that because there was something in that book that they needed to master. It could have been a story point, or something language related. But their hungry little brain was trying to bite, chew, swallow, and digest something new. And it took them a hundred thousand trillion times to digest it. Then they pooped it out. All done.
Their brain knew what it needed. And that knowing continues. They do the same thing with beloved movies. Or a game they play with you. Or a question they ask a hundred thousand trillion times, and you’re like, “I’m pretty sure we covered this, kid.” But for them, it’s not quite digested. Not yet.
Kids also know what they don’t need, or aren’t ready for. Often, they deal with information that they’re not ready for by not digesting it at all. Like when you swallow a marble, it’ll go down smooth and come right out the other end. Other times, they want to avoid it. And it’s this instinct that will save children from the content they shouldn’t be watching.
It happens most easily with books. A kid is reading a book, and they put it down. Close it. Don’t come back to it. Maybe they were bored. But “bored” means “there is nothing in there that is engaging my brain,” “nothing in there I want to taste and chew and digest.” Or maybe there was something in that book that scared them, or upset them—something they weren’t ready to eat yet. To continue this chewing and digesting and pooping metaphor (you’re welcome!), it’s like when you offer a kid pepperoni and mushroom pizza. One day, they’re gonna love it. But not yet.
As a parent, my job isn’t to try to predict what will scare my kid and what won’t (a nice bear is scarier than murder? What?). My job is to empower my child to make those decision herself. With books, as I said, closing them is the easiest thing in the world. But content on a screen comes at you fast, without you having to do a thing. You just sit there, as Mother Goethel stabs poor Flynn Rider in the kidney. Or maybe the spleen. Whatever, it was awful.
So what we have to do is teach our children that they are in control of the content that they’re watching. We have to teach them that they know what they need. When a movie or show starts to make them feel uncomfortable, they need to learn to listen to themselves, just as they do at the dinner table. When that little voice inside of them says, “I don’t like this,” they need to get up and come find a grown-up, or, if they’re old enough, grab the remote and mash the “Home” button as many times as possible.
We can teach our kids to do that by sitting with them as they watch, and modeling being in touch with how you’re feeling about what you’re seeing.
(Just at first, as you’re teaching your kid to judge content for themselves! Not forever! Because I know you’re thinking, “Hey! My kid watches TV so I can do the dishes, and fix that faucet that doesn’t turn anymore for some reason, and maybe catch five minutes of the game that I have been waiting for all week and won’t get to see the end of!” I hear you. Trust me, I hear you.)
But at first, especially with content that might be borderline, sit with your kid.
As you’re sitting with your kid, talk to them during the content. Tell them how you’re feeling. Model being in touch with your reactions. “I don’t like her.” “Ooh! That’s scary!” “The fart jokes are my favorites.” And so on.
Then, check in with your kid, and invite your kid to react like you are. “How’re you feeling? A bit scared?” And assure them that however they’re feeling is okay. It’s okay to love something that’s scary—and it’s okay to hate it, too.
Finally, show them how to act on their feelings. “You know what? I’m not liking this. It’s boring. Let’s find a different show.” Or, “Mother Goethel is making me too uncomfortable. Can we turn it off?” And encourage your kid to participate in that decision, and ultimately make it themselves. “How’re you feeling? Keep going or choose something else?”
Eventually, you’ll be able to start the show with them, remind them to come get you if they’re not liking it, or to turn it off and choose something better for them. And then you can go fight that friggin’ faucet (what is wrong with that thing? This happens like every month!). And maybe, if you’re lucky, catch the end of the game.
This is a great skill for kids to develop when consuming content, and it’s a great skill for life. When my girl is hanging with new friends, or maybe a love interest, one day, when it’s appropriate, in like 30 years, I want her to be able to check in with herself, and say, “This is making me uncomfortable. I’m out.” She needs to be able to say that. Might as well teach her how, while I’m fixing a faucet.
Okay, so this was all for parents. But since I’m also one of the bad guys making the scary content, I have some suggestions for creators, too.
As a creator, I also want to empower kids. It’s like the once-famous Manhattan discount store Syms used to say: “An educated consumer is our best customer.” (Which was a great slogan and a total lie; their clothes were all rejects from the department stores, and I regularly choked myself on loose threads from sweaters that wrapped around my neck as I was trying to put them on.) But in content, it’s true. We’re not trying to take kids unawares. A traumatized consumer is not gonna be a return customer. I want the kids who read my books, listen to my podcast, and watch my show to come out the other side feeling happy, wiser, stronger—and having laughed a lot, too.
One technique I use, in nearly all of my work, is a narrator who explicitly warns the kids when something upsetting is going to happen. This might seem cheesy, but it’s actually sneaky smart (if I do say so myself): for the kids who want scary, it dares them to go on. And for kids who don’t, it warns them off—especially if they feel empowered to close the book or turn off the show.
Another way creators can help kids take control of their own viewing is by balancing the scary with funny. There is, in my opinion, not nearly enough scary+funny content out there. Humor/horror, as I think of it, is one of my very favorite genres (especially philosophical humor/horror, as in Jordan Peele’s adult offering Get Out). By couching scary in the context of funny, we can relieve kids, take the fear down a few notches, and then slowly ratchet it up again, so they’re ready for the next bout of terror — if they want it.
In the end, parents and creators should want kids to feel empowered to make their own choices. We can all help kids learn to know what they need, and listen to themselves. Which will help them in choosing content — and in everything else in life.
Also, that way, we overworked, stretched-thin, dizzy-with-exhaustion parents can sit down for one flipping minute and see overtime, at the very least. And we won’t have to look over at our child and ask, “Uhh… should she be watching that?” The kids can ask that question — and answer it — themselves.
Adam Gidwitz is the author of the bestselling A Tale Dark & Grimm and its companions; the Newbery Honor book The Inquisitor’s Tale, and the bestselling Unicorn Rescue Society series. He tells creepy fairy tales live to kids on his podcast Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest. is now an animated series and premiered as one of the top ten most watched shows on all of Netflix, both in the United States and in countries around the world.