As children’s media portrays a more diverse array of characters and perspectives, it becomes more likely that children will develop heroes that don’t look like them. That’s a good thing (actually, it’s a complicated thing for reasons to do with how the mind develops, but it’s a good thing culturally). However, when Halloween rolls around, the increasing diversity of kid’s fandom can lead to some costumed awkwardness. How does a parent navigate that awkward moment when their kid wants to innocently appropriate the skin color, mannerisms, or cultural symbols of an ethnicity that’s not their own?
“What are the values that we hope to pass forward to our children?” asks Dr. Loretta Brady, Professor of Psychology at Saint Anselm College. “How do we want to model the way we balance our own interests against what other people might feel or need?”
That’s the big complicated question that should inform parents’ answer to the smaller complicated question. Understandably, some parents may see it as a heavy lift to center a dialogue about ethnicity, culture and respect around a Halloween costume. Besides, is it even worth it? Are these big societal issues something a kid can really understand? Well, yeah, probably.
“I do think that very young children have the capacity to talk about differences and similarities,” she says. “And I think young children have the capacity to have conversations about being respectful, kind and not ignoring people and their needs.”
That said, the dialogue does not have to be complicated. In terms of black, yellow, red or white-face, the answer is delightfully simple: Skin is not a costume. Brady points out that this helpful phrase emerged during 2016’s Moana tattoo-suit controversy, but has implications beyond a shirt depicting sacred Polynesian tattoos.
For costumes themselves that may include heavy cultural appropriation, the conversation can simply be a matter of troubleshooting. Is there some element of that costume that is reinforcing a stereotype and is it helpful to do that? Lose it. “Is there a way that you can capture the character you’re trying to depict that communicates the character but doesn’t necessarily perpetuate stereotypes?” asks Brady. If so, do that.
For Brady, these questions are less about developing a rule book for the cultural sensitivities of 2017, 2018, 2019, (etc.). The dialogues are more about recognizing points in parenthood where reflection about differences in ethnicity and culture can occur. “That’s ultimately going to benefit us far more,” Brady says. “As more voices are included in our society we are going to learn more about what those voices think and feel and how they experience the world.”
But Brady also points out that maybe adults get too serious about children and Halloween costumes. “They are kids,” she says. “We don’t have to micro-manage every experience they have in their lives. Maybe every experience we have doesn’t have to be a battleground for the first amendment.”
Still, there’s nothing wrong with being a bit more intentional. “All of us could probably take ourselves a little less seriously, but all of us could do more to think about the different perspectives that are represented,” Brady says. “That process in itself makes it likely we can be less partisan and extreme around this stuff.”