What is the meaning of your child's Halloween costume?
Posted October 20, 2016
Tara Gover’s 8-year-old daughter didn’t want to just be a princess for Halloween, but a skeleton princess. She wanted to be both pretty and scary.
Where the idea to dress as a skeleton princess came from, Gover doesn’t entirely know. Her daughter has wanted to dress up as a skeleton for awhile and enjoys running around in skeleton face paint, said the 40-year-old information technology worker from Broomfield, Colorado.
The creative combination came from her daughter as they were looking for costume ideas at the store.
The costume will consist of skeleton face paint, skeleton gloves and a dress. Gover feels her daughter’s choice embodies “individualism and creativity,” because she didn’t pick a “regular superhero or Disney characters.”
Indeed, research shows that a child's choice of Halloween costumes can be seen as an expression of identity and a grasp at more power in their lives. Michael Oberschneider, a child psychologist who wrote a column on the psychology behind children’s costume choices, wrote “what costume your child selects, can say a lot about who he or she is or where they are developmentally.”
Some of the most common costumes for children and the deeper meanings Oberschneider attributed to them are:
- Monsters. Pretending to be one can give a child a sense of power and control, “two things children do not normally have a lot of.” Dressing as a monster can make the fears and challenges they face seem a “little less scary and unsettling.
- Heroes. Children like superheroes “because they can identify with the simple and concrete message that there is good and bad in the world,” maintaining a black-and-white way of thinking until about age 10.
- Villains. Children can be curious about why people go bad and become villains, as “they know that people are not supposed to be mean or bad or evil.”
- Princesses. Some parents may worry that letting their daughter dress up as princess may negatively impact their body image. But Oberschneider feels that “girls will grow up to be strong and confident because of the lessons we teach them and the values we instill in them as parents,” and to let a girl dress as feminine or masculine as she wishes to.
“Whether they’re 3 or 8 or 12 or 15, for kids to get in touch with and explore their own creative side, I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “We don’t have to get everything off the rack to have fun.”
What's popular, what's not
What "off-the-rack" costumes are popular can change over time, which also creates a predictable buzz around this time of year.
After 11 years of holding the top spot in the National Retail Federation’s Halloween consumer survey, princesses have dropped to No. 2 of children’s costume choices, second to superheroes. The survey asked 6,791 consumers about their Halloween costume plans, NRF spokeswoman Treacy Reynolds said in an email, and the group estimates more than 3 million children will be going as an action hero or superhero, while 2.9 million will dress as their favorite princess.
Parents were asked if they knew what their child or children would be dressing up as for Halloween. The survey did not ask the age or gender of the children involved, so whether the change in costume popularity reflects a change in priorities among young girls or boys is unknown.
But the question is intriguing.
“It wouldn’t take a lot of girls to dress as superheroes,” said clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg, who has been lecturing on the psychology of superheroes and cosplay (when people dress up in costumes of their favorite characters outside of Halloween) for more than 10 years. “It may not take any girls, to nudge superhero costumes into the most popular.”
The age of the children surveyed is also a factor, as it tends to be younger girls, not teens, who choose to dress as princesses, Rosenberg noted.
But it’s possible more girls are choosing superhero tights over princess dresses, Rosenberg admitted.
The change could be pragmatic since family themed costumes can be easier to pull off if based around superheroes than around royalty.
Or parents could be steering their daughters away from stereotypes of “the princess narrative” and toward what they see as the values represented by a “superhero narrative.”
A recent study from Brigham Young University has found evidence that pre-school- and kindergarten-age girls who engage and highly identify with Disney princesses will take on more positive and negative feminine stereotypes.
"Feminine behavior can be great on so many dimensions, like being kind and nurturing," said lead author Sarah Coyne, an associate professor of human development in the Brigham Young University's School of Family Life. "But girls can be limited by stereotypes in a number of ways. They can think they can't do well in math and science or they don't want a career," or choose not to take risks or explore or do new things, for fear they're not feminine enough or they'll get dirty.
Annie Rim, 34, is one parent who steered her 4-year-old daughter away from a princess costume to a superhero costume. Originally, her daughter wanted to be an American flag, but after a princess dress-up playdate, she said wanted to be a princess for Halloween. Rim said she “hemmed and hedged about being a princess, since it was solely peer pressure that sparked the switch.”
“I'm not anti-princess, but we try not to make it the default choice in games and dress up,” she said.
While they were at Costco, her daughter spotted a Supergirl costume with a sparkly tutu that looked similar to the American flag. After talking with her daughter for a few weeks, the Aurora, Colorado mother said her daughter decided to go as Supergirl.
“For Halloween, as well as in daily life, I try to give our daughter as much freedom as possible in her outfit choices,” Rim said. “But, I also want to teach her to think through her choices and make them with as much intentionality as possible.”
Oberschneider said parents should be supportive of their child’s costume choices, with two main exceptions: Sexually provocative costumes or costumes that could be considered insensitive to a race, culture or celebrity who has recently died.
Parents should take the time to explain why a costume would be inappropriate.
While some parents may worry about costumes with guns, swords and other weapons, Oberschneider wrote that it’s fine, as long as there’s not “over emphasis on or preoccupation with the weapon.”
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