It's Halloween, and I'm here to tell you to scare your kids fearlessly. It's good for them. First, a story.
Early last summer, my 9-year-old daughter and I took a trip to Hershey Park.
Casey loves roller coasters (we first tackled Great Adventure's Nitro and its blinding 80-mph speed when she was 4). But vertical plunges? No.
That day I repeatedly asked her whether she'd like to try Fahrenheit, a coaster that (egad) ascends 121 feet before plummeting down a (double egad) 97-degree drop. She'd shake her head, "No." Once she overcame the fear and took the plunge, I thought, genuine euphoria would ensue. Finally, I made an offer.
"Casey," I said, "if you go on Fahrenheit, I'll let you play three games and buy you a soda (banned in our household).
"OK," she said, gulping. "I'll do it." When the attendant locked down the protective bar, tears appeared.
"I don't want to do this," she said. More tears.
"Daddy, I don't want to do this." Onlookers began to stare.
"Honey, are you OK?" an employee asked. "Do you need to get off?"
"Nooooo," Casey said, still crying. "No."
The ride started to move. Up. Up. Up. Straight up, staring into the blue Pennsylvania sky.
"Daddy, noooooooo," Casey wailed. "Daddy, I can't do this ... Daddddddddyyyyyyyyy ..."
I was the worst father in history.
We began our steep downward plunge. I turned to look at Casey. She was grinning, ear to ear.
"Whoooooooooooooooo!" she screamed. "This! Is! Awesome! This! Is! Awesome!"
As yet another October 31 approaches, I've been thinking a lot about Casey and Fahrenheit and the virtues of a scared tyke. Last weekend, at my children's elementary school, the wife and I organized a Halloween party that included, for the first time, a haunted house. The fare was pretty typical: a man in a Michael Myers mask reaching out toward people, a cemetery filled with zombies, a crazy chef cooking guts and eyeballs. It was held in a dark hallway and despite that was clearly more about fun than fear.
Yet one after another, parents questioned me about whether their 6-to-11-year-old tykes were ready for a fright, whether perhaps being too scared would create some sort of enduring mental impairment that could haunt their dreams (and ruin their Harvard futures). I wasn't merely asked whether the house was scary. I was asked whether Junior could "handle it."
"He might flinch a little," I'd say. "But he can handle it."
Some turned away angrily. Others silently walked off. About 400 kids took the plunge. Some cried at the end, but only a few.
Truth is, sometimes kids need to be scared. Pushed. Coerced. And forced to try things that might feel uncomfortable or awkward or even terrifying. But, handled right, can also allow them to emerge feeling proud, brave and accomplished.
"Children are resilient by nature," said Tammy Regnet, a prevention specialist in the Buffalo, New York, public school system. "As long as there's some support available, they can bounce back from difficult experiences without much trouble."
In her work, Regnet is part of a team that takes inner-city children to a ropes course in the woods. There's a zipline, and it's high and long and daunting.
"The kids have to be pulled up, and when they're ready to stop they yell out, 'OK, stop now!'" said Regnet. "But we always say, 'Are you sure you don't want to go a bit further?' We try and talk them into it, because the goal is to have them experience life. Without crossing a comfort line, that's hard to do."
Are there limitations? Surely, said Vanessa Taback, a psychologist with the Yonkers public school system. In New York parents should already be cued into their kid's emotional readiness.