By Alan Resnick / Detroit
Halloween is now upon us, that giddy time of the year when school-age children across the country dress up in fanciful costumes, participate in parades and parties, and get to binge on candy during class.
But not if your child attends elementary school in East Lansing, Mich.
USA Today reported last week that Halloween and Valentine’s Day celebrations have been canceled in the East Lansing school district due to concerns raised by a few prickly parents. An unspecified percentage of students have reportedly been seen crying on Halloween "because they don't have the same kind of costumes that other kids have or they didn't bring the same amazing valentines that other kids do," according to the district’s assistant superintendent.
Some parents have reportedly kept their children home or picked them up early on Halloween in an attempt to minimize any possible psychological trauma associated with having less elaborate costumes than other kids. In their letter to parents, the district’s humorless principals wrote that parades and parties can also make it difficult for children to concentrate and for teachers to teach.
One afternoon each school year can be that disruptive?
The parents of East Lansing who are more concerned with the challenges of the pandemic than this Halloween kerfuffle must be exploding. Surely, this outrage du jour is not the top educational concern of our era.
I too admit to feeling a dull ache in my cranium as I read the USA Today article. And I am not one of those Halloweenie types who gets jazzed up about Pumpkin Day. You couldn’t pay me enough to go to a costume party, our house is devoid of any Halloween decorations, and I don’t wear a scary mask when passing out treats. It’s fun to see the little tykes dressed up in their costumes — at least for about 10 minutes until the front door is pounded on and the doorbell incessantly pressed during the middle of dinner.
But unceremoniously canceling the school Halloween party or parade? A little creative thinking would have gone a long way. I appreciate that not all families have the financial resources to buy elaborate costumes, but the cutest and most creative ones I see each year are handmade and not terribly fancy. Funny costumes, no matter how inexpensive, are usually hits. And I would think that a far stronger childhood memory would come from a parent and child planning and making a costume together rather than simply ripping open a bag from Party City or a box from Amazon and pulling one out.
This just seems like a spectacular overreaction. How about making costumes optional? My guess is that some kids don’t even want to wear them but are forced to do so by their parents. Or give kids an option, such as wearing one to school or creating a mask in class with construction paper or a paper bag, safety scissors, and some crayons and markers? Of course, this option would send the parents of artistically challenged children into a frenzy.
Happily, though, the East Lansing school district is not canceling Halloween or Valentine’s Day entirely. It intends to add the celebrations to the course curriculum. For example, the ever-serious-minded assistant superintendent cited a class measuring a pumpkin while learning about circumference. Not exactly a parade, but at least it’s something.
We’re living in a time where everything seems to offend, marginalize, demean, or ignore someone. It goes without saying that past traditions and practices absolutely should be examined for possible discrimination, deliberate inequities, and unintended consequences. But watering things down to the point that they become as inoffensive as possible to everyone may also leave them joyless and meaningless. Who wants to live in a world where either everyone gets the same things or no one gets anything?
As a parent, I completely identify with the desire to keep kids safe from physical and emotional dangers. But there has to be some balance between paving over every speed bump in childhood and letting children experience and learn from them. Sandpapering down each rough spot in the name of inclusion and equity doesn’t help children develop the emotional resilience or coping skills they will need as they grow older.
Eventually all kids will encounter the messiness, difficulties, heartbreak, and inequities of life, and some preparation is necessary. One of the most crucial lessons life teaches is that someone else will always have more than you or be smarter or more successful. If you spend your life comparing yourself to others and basing your happiness on equaling them, you’ll always be unhappy and unfulfilled. And there’s no disgrace in trying your best and coming up short because someone else did better.
My sincere hope is that the worst thing to happen in life to the kids in East Lansing will be embarrassment over having lesser Halloween costumes or mundane valentines. But I doubt it.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.