Choosing a Halloween Costume

photo of teen and toddler trick or treating

It’s that time of year again – time to choose this year’s Halloween costume! Consider: who makes the choice? How do you choose something that’s appropriate for rainy night trick-or-treating AND for indoor parties? Where should you shop? How do you feel about sexy costumes? Gory costumes? What about culturally appropriate costumes? Or home-made costumes? There’s lots to think about and lots of good meaty discussions to be had with kids related to those choices. (If you’re looking for more info on Trick or Treating, read my post on How Halloween Works.)

Who chooses?

For a young child, you usually have complete control over their costume choice. The older they get, the more say they want in the decision. As with all things, I tell parents that it’s good to let your child make developmentally appropriate choices, but you as the parent always maintain control over what options are on the table.

For a young child, I personally prefer to do the shopping around for ideas by myself – either going to the store first to preview the options, or looking online and narrowing it down to a small number of reasonable options. If they’re right next to you while you start looking, they may fall in love with something that is inappropriate for some reason, and then you have a battle to fight. It’s just smoother if you think through the logistics and know what the options are before you offer them the final choice.

For an older child, before shopping for a costume, set ground rules for what’s OK, and what’s not: “We need to pick something that would be OK for the dance AND for outdoor trick or treating.” “Remember, the rules are no masks at school.” “Our maximum budget is…” If they make a choice that fits the rules, even if you think it’s a foolish choice for some reason, then you can go along with it… Now, to be fair, I do point out to my child what I think the problem might be, but if they choose it anyway, then maybe it works out, or maybe they learn a lesson for the future. (Read about natural consequences.)

Understanding their Reasons

Sometimes our kids’ costume preferences confuse us. We wonder why they would choose that. Or we make assumptions about what it might mean that they would choose that. Sometimes we might be uncomfortable based on those assumptions. It’s always worth asking your child why they are interested in that costume. Their reasons may be very different than you assume, and might lead you to some new insight into your child and how they view the world.

Or not… this morning my 7 yo son asked “Do you think I should be Pikachu again or should I be a murderer?” I voted Pikachu, which he easily agreed to. I asked why he wanted to be a murderer and he just said “I dunno. Just seemed like an interesting idea.”

Think about when and where it will be worn

When I was a kid, you pretty much only wore your costume once, on Halloween evening. But with the current generation of kids, I’ve found they end up wearing them many times in one week: to a  party the Saturday before Halloween, to the costume parade at church, to a party at school, and then trick or treating. Make sure you choose something that is practical for all those venues. (For example, if you have a first grader who will need to put on his costume by himself over his school clothes, make sure that’s possible. If you have to drive to the party venue, think about how your costumed child will fit in the car seat. My husband once dressed as a pencil for a high school dance – great costume… hard to dance in!) If you’re taking a little one trick or treating, be sure you can carry them in their costume when (not if) they get tired.

What about the weather?

I grew up in Wyoming, where the temperature was often below freezing for trick or treating, so we needed to have costumes that fit over our down parkas. Or we had to wear the coat on top, which covered up most of the costume. My kids have grown up in Seattle, which means the temperature can be anywhere from about 45 – 65 degrees, and the chances of rain are very high. So, either you choose a costume that can handle the rain, or carry an umbrella. (Yes, I know “Seattleites don’t use umbrellas” but this can be an exception.) Or, I know some families who have allowed their child to have one costume for indoor events and a practical outdoor-friendly costume for trick or treating. (Bonus: that Pikachu costume that’s big enough to fit over a parka may also be flexible enough in sizing for you kid to wear it multiple years.)

photo of child in pikachu costume

What about safety?

If you’ll be trick or treating outdoors after dark, you may want to ensure that your child won’t be dressed in solid black from head to toe, or if they are, consider a white treat bag, or fastening a glow stick or light to their treat bag.

Also make sure that they have enough visibility through their mask to be able to move safely in a dark neighborhood, and that their costume wouldn’t get tangled up and make them fall if they were moving quickly.

Where to Shop

Choose to Re-Use

Halloween costumes are the perfect item to shop for at consignment shops and other second hand sellers. They are all only worn a few times, so buying used means you get a good quality item for much cheaper and it’s better for the environment than buying more and more new goods. You could also see if you have a local Buy Nothing Project group on Facebook, or see if there are any local costume exchange parties (my city, Kirkland, has a Halloween costume swap where people go in one day to donate old costumes and come back the next to choose a free costume. But this year, it happened on September 29, and I don’t manage to even think about Halloween in September.)

people shopping at halloween costume swap

Online

ben.jpgI hate shopping in stores. I strongly prefer online shopping. I like that I can go to Amazon and type in dinosaur costume and get LOTS of good options to choose from, where I can read all the reviews and learn about the ones that the Velcro never stays fastened on, or whose hood was too small to fit on any kids’ head. And I have to say, the dinosaur costume I bought when he was two was great!

Stores

Halloween specialty stores may have a lot more options than your local big box store. However, they also have lots of Halloween decorations. That can be exciting for some kids and scary for others. My oldest at age 3 was in the mall with grandma, and they walked past a Halloween store, and there was a mask in the window based on the artwork The Scream by Edvard Munch. My child was terrified and cried and cried and wouldn’t go to that part of the mall for the next few weeks.

This is another reason it can be good to preview your options at the store by yourself before bringing a little one along!

What’s Appropriate? What’s Inappropriate?

Sexy Costumes

Now, if you have a teenage girl, they’re likely to have years where they want to choose a sexy costume. (Yes, the photo at the top of the page is my teenage daughter in her Black Widow costume with her toddler brother in his Kipper the dog costume.)

It’s generally not that they want to be sexy or have sex, so much as that they want to look grown-up and match images they see in the media. They may not really understand how they could be perceived by others. (This offers a good opportunity to talk to them about sexuality and sexual harassment / creepy behavior.)  Set the limits you feel are appropriate and stick to them even when they say “It’s not fair! You don’t understand!” You may consider context – if they’re going to a party with just friends, or trick or treating with their parents in tow, you might offer more leeway, but if they’re going out to the mall with friends, where they’ll meet a variety of strangers, you might be more cautious.

For little kids, personally, I would refuse to buy any costume for a young girl that hints at being “sexy.” I don’t want to support those companies. But, you should set the limits that feel right for your family and your values.

Gory Costumes

There is also a trend toward more bloody, gory costumes and decorations. Costumes sold in sizes that fit 5 year olds include: characters from horror movies I hope you don’t let your child watch yet (Jason, Freddy, Chucky, Michael Myers), zombies with bloody axes, skeletons with rotting flesh, and zombie sock monkey with blood splashes.

Part of the joy of Halloween has always been that exploration of the darker side of life and of stories. There is a little thrill that comes from role-playing something that is more evil than you would ever want to be. But the question is how dark is too dark?

“I think wearing these costumes and being exposed to human depravity, even in a ‘fun’ context, doesn’t scar kids so much as desensitize them to brutal violence,” Schwartzberg said. “Kids are less able to distinguish between real world and fictional brutality than grown-ups.”  (Source)

If your child wants a gory costume, have a discussion with them about how they think other people might feel about it. They may get a thrill over being seen as edgy. But, you may share with them that some kids are afraid to go trick or treating or to open the door to trick or treaters at their home because the gory costumes are so frightening to them.

Note: sometimes at Halloween, conversations about death come up. Here’s info on Talking to Children about Death.

Weapons

photo of toddler in Ben Kenobi costumeLots of costumes, particularly for boys, involve weapons of various sorts. Some parents choose no weapons. Some will OK “fantasy weapons” such as a light saber for Ben Kenobi or a sword for a knight. If you’d like to learn more about why children are fascinated with guns and weapons and how we can allow some exploration but set appropriate limits, read my post on Weapon Play.

Gender Stereotypes

Costumes reinforce a lot of gender stereotypes: the pretty princess, the pretty butterfly, the pretty kitty are little girl costumes. The superhero with the built in bulging muscles, the ferocious dinosaur / monster, and the powerful Transformer are little boy costumes. If a child wants a police officer or firefighter costume, the boys’ version of the costume looks like the real thing. The girls’ version comes with a short skirt, a low cut top and high heels.

“While the boys have costumes that look like the real thing, girls are expected to dress up in spoof ensembles, thus suggesting they can’t, or shouldn’t, do the real job.” (Huffington)

This offers a chance to talk to children about gender stereotypes.

Gender Switching

Halloween offers opportunity to try on new roles. For a lot of kids, they explore gender. Up until recently, female superheroes rarely appeared, so some girls would choose to be Superman or Batman… not their lame counterparts Supergirl and Batgirl. Parents may encourage their girls to choose Scientist and Doctor costumes. Middle school boys may think it’s hilarious to dress up like a girl.

All of these situations offer an opportunity to talk about gender identity.  Like the gender stereotypes addressed above: What roles are typically assigned to which gender and why? What is the difference between gender expression (how we choose to dress for one night or all the time) and gender identity (how we feel on the inside)? What appeals to them about that costume?

Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation

If a black child wanted to dress as Black Panther, you might think “hurray, he finally has a superhero who represents him”. But if a white child wants the same costume, is that unfair because he could be any other superhero, or is it good because he has a black hero that he looks up to? Different people have different answers to these questions, based on their own life experiences.

Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Dress as a character, not the race. There’s a difference between dressing as Moana, a particular character whose adventurousness your child admires versus deciding to be “Hawaiian” for the day.  Cultural appreciation is “not  donning a Sombrero to be a Mexican; wearing a headscarf and calling yourself a Sheikh; or putting on a kimono and a bun to become a geisha.” (Fatherly)
  • No “blackface” – making your skin or hair look like a person of another race. (Fatherly)
  • Think first about the source culture. Is this a culture that has been historically discriminated against or oppressed (blacks, Native Americans)? (USA Today) If so, is it fair for you to be able to take the costume off at the end of the day, and not have to experience or think about any of the discrimination faced by that marginalized group?
  • Wearing something that was worn by a person in history – a knight’s armor or a Samurai’s armor is more fanciful. If you wear something “your neighbor might wear everyday — a sari, or a kimono, or hijab — then maybe that starts to cross the line.” (USA Today)
  • What’s the significance of what you’re taking? Is it something that is of major cultural significance, or maybe even something sacred, or is it just a run-of-the-mill ordinary item, an everyday commodity? (USA Today) Consider avoiding symbols of great significance to cultures other than your own.
  • If your child particularly admires another culture, then instead of dressing up as a member of that culture, you could instead study that culture, and buy items made by people of that culture to support their work, and participate in local cultural events to meet real people from that culture instead of fictional stereotypes. (CafeMom)
  • Another question that is worth asking: Is this something someone could and would choose? A common costume over the years has been a “bum”. It’s a simple costume because you can just take some old clothes, tear them up a little and add some “dirt.” But is it fair to dress up as a homeless person when you get to go home at the end of the day to a warm dry house?

However you choose to handle these situations in your family:

Halloween is an opportunity to have a conversation with your child about race, power, and privilege … No matter what you decide for your family, our hope is that you engage in reflections about how you may or may not be perpetuating stereotypes/racism. (Raising Race Conscious Children)

Read more about Talking to Your Children about Differences.

Heroes

One thing to consider is asking your child to use Halloween as an opportunity to explore their heroes – who do they look up to? who do they want to be like? And use that to guide their costume choice. (Read about superheroes as role models, and why we need heroes.)

Obscure or Commonplace

I have seen kids who were horribly disappointed when they see another kid wearing the same costume. I’ve seen others who were thrilled to find their match. I’ve seen kids who delighted in having an obscure costume, partially because they thought they were really cool to have an obscure interest. I’ve seen others who were really sad that not a single person they encountered recognized their costume. I had a group of friends, that back when an author named Lois McMaster Bujoldwas still fairly unknown, went to a science fiction convention dressed as Dendarii mercenaries, partially because it gave us an excuse to tell people that her books were great and they should be reading them.

With my kids, I’ve let them know when I thought there might be an issue and let them decide. “Hmmm… I bet there will be lots of other Marios. How would you feel if you ran into another one?” or “Hmmm… I’m not sure anyone will recognize that character. When you trick or treat, they’ll all ask you who you are. How will you answer?”

Home-Made Costumes

My older kids were blessed to have a Grandma who could sew anything. Each year in September, she would ask them what they wanted to be for Halloween. And whatever they said, she would make it happen. It evolved from teddy bear and kitten to Dorothy or a cowgirl, and then into a series of characters from video games and anime / manga. And every year a new creation would appear.

Halloween by Alice

By the time my youngest was born, my mom was starting to develop Alzheimer’s, so she was only able to make a few costumes for him. (The center photos in the top row.) So, his costumes come in a box from Amazon. They’re great costumes, but it’s just not the same… If you have a family member who sews and would be willing, ask them! This was such a special thing for my family, and a way my mom stayed connected to grandkids who lived 1000 miles away. Each year, it gave her an insight into what their current passions were.

Now, I know how to sew too. (How could I not, with a mom who was a home ec teacher!) But, as a working mom of young kids, I don’t think I’ve ever been up to making a full costume for my kids. But, if you search Pinterest, there’s countless ideas for home-made costumes that don’t require much time and effort, and can be fun for you and your child to have the satisfaction of having made something together. But, also know that sometimes you work really hard on something, and it doesn’t turn out like the child had hoped. It’s good to think about this in advance so you can decide how to respond if they ask not to wear that costume after all.

Costumes for Parents

Do you wonder if you should have a costume too? I say it’s up to you. If it makes you happy to dress up, then do it! Having a kid is a great excuse to play!

Personally, I HATE dressing up, so I opt out.

You do you.

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