children's literature, Darling Hedgehog, halloween, op-ed, protecting our children

Is It a Good Idea to Scare Little Kids?

Would adults change their behaviors in the jokes they tell or in their scare tactics with children if they knew how little children absorbed horrific events? Would it make any difference to you?

The professionals and parents are divided. Some say horror can permanently scar a child’s conscience. Others say for a child to experience a series of frightening events at a young age can strengthen a child in a variety of ways.

Let’s take a vote.

DO YOU BELIEVE AT AGES FIVE, SIX, AND SEVEN:

  1. children should be protected from all frights because fright might scar them spiritually, emotionally or psychologically;
  2. children should be scared (occasionally) for the fun of a joke with them or for rites of passage such as in Halloween, sitting on Santa’s knee, taught about the police or the courts or jail, or riding a bike or a motorized skateboard;
  3. children should learn that fright exists to teach us important lessons which can be learned about together;
  4. children should learn about the sometimes frightful powers of God and the differences between evil frights and wickedness in human nature as appropriate.
  5. children can learn courage and problem-solving creativity at young ages if they can learn to analyze a frightful situation the best of which was seen in the Home Alone movies.
(Please post your answer in the comment section below)

The cat is out of the bag. I’ve authored a scary story for children. It was recently published by Capture Books. So, I have a dog in the fight, or a hedgehog, rather.

In the first draft, Darling Hedgehog was not able to save all of the other animals due to the time crunch of escaping the danger. Several beta readers, however, suggested that this fact would not go unnoticed by their first graders. Honestly? I wrestled with the question of whether it was important to be realistic in a fantasy picture book. Silly me.

Children develop empathy when they read about another’s problems.

Not too many know this about a girl, Auralee Arkinsly, who’s been called sweet for many years, but when she was in fifth and sixth grade, she’d sit on her neighbor’s porch with a gaggle of children from their house, and the rest of the neighborhood who had all come by to hear the scary stories that she’d happily created for them. The problem was, she frightened herself. She gave herself a fear of going along to bed alone in my room way down in the dark basement.

This is the simple reason my scary story times ended.

For years afterward my laudable storytelling experience, I stayed completely strawberry and vanilla in my taste for stories, jokes, movies, and literature. It was due to an introduction to two classical authors in my 30s that I was inspired to rethink my vanilla beans ideals.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

This 1962 dark fantasy novel by Ray Bradbury is about two 13-year-old best friends, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, and their nightmarish experience with a traveling carnival that comes to their Midwestern home, Green Town, Illinois, on October 24th. Since it was eventually made into a movie, I sent it to my niece and nephew one October when they were preteens.

Particularly, the clever, atmospheric writing Bradbury used when he painted late summer windstorms and dawdling days with falling leaves and evil intent made me feel like All Hallows Eve inside. All of this desire to fast and pray for protection is happily explained when… well, I won’t give away the fabulously moralistic tale in case you haven’t yet read Bradbury.

The Short Stories of Flannery O’Conner

The other ingenious author, Flannery O’Conner, introduced to me at a writers group, typed her twisted tales from the south. Due to her subject matter, i.e.: fraud, criminal minds, and human ignorance, her stories could almost be transported to any place. Perhaps it was the nature of things she read in her local newspaper. Perhaps she was only highlighting a sinful lack of imagination when she invoked the perfect storm for a family traveling on an isolated road, or a Bible salesman in a barn, or a nuclear bomb at our front door.

Of course, great themes of any adult or children’s book have intrepid and surprising settings that morph with the characters. These are the stories that teach readers and viewers about life and personal values.

It seems that night terrors can be developed at any age given a 3 a.m. pounding on the door and intrusion to a person’s bedroom, or due to war experiences. Night terrors are not limited to the fears of little children.

But is it right to purposely frighten kids?

It’s easy to see that Halloween and Trick-or-treat are right around the bend.

This year, a house in my community has skeletons crawling all over the house, mixing a zombie like activity with the bones of the picturesque dead. Another house on the same street has a half dozen wild-haired witches flying from the low hanging branches of their trees. The wind helps them stir up fright.

Several other houses have graveyards with chained skeletons, and voice boxed startling movement detectors. Apparently, most people think that given the right season, yes, it is just fine to frighten children.

Babies and toddlers in the arms of their fathers

Young children, who visit Santa Claus for the first time in a shopping mall, who are told to sit on his knee and tell him their secrets, well – parents think this is funny. Just fine. A rite of passage, they say.

Given it’s Halloween, babies and toddlers in the arms of their fathers come knocking on our door.

The saying, “That’ll put the fear of God in ya!” is ancient. You’ve heard it. The fear of God can be conjured in trying to stand in a forest of redwoods in the midst of a monstrous wind storm. Suddenly, one feels like Jack and the bean stock, having climbed up to the house of giants and seeing them thunder after you. Where does one hide?

There may be a kind of healthy fear that comes as a sense of awe or as a warning such as a careful look over the edge of a precipice in the Grand Canyon, or in diving out of an airplane with a parachute on for the first time.

“In ancient days,
There dwelt a sage called Discipline,
His eye was meek, and a smile
Played on his lips, and in his speech was heard
Paternal sweetness, dignity, and love.
The occupation dearest to his heart
Was to encourage goodness.
If e’er it chanced, as sometimes chance it must,
That one, among so many, overleaped
The limits of control, his gentle eye
Grew stern, and darted a severe rebuke,
His frown was full of terror, and his voice
Shook the delinquent with such fits of awe
As left him not, till penitence had won
Lost favor back again, and closed the breach.”

Samuel Philip

An artist who paints the potential of Venetian floods does so with both goodwill and warning. I realize there are warnings, opportunities, to learn introspection and courage at every age.

Any season is a good season to be goaded towards stronger mental analysis.

So, I went ahead and wrote my picture book about what happens between a fox and a hedgehog family living in geographical proximity. This story does have a sincere model of courage, quick thinking, and Darling-to-the-rescue in it. But, how much mental analysis can a child conjure at ages five, six or seven?

In a climate of it never being okay to confront a child with possibilities of an existing dark side in life, my first review, always to be Darling’s first review, pasted a one-star nasty put down for scaring little children. Yet, it never has been a child who’s been frightened by Darling Hedgehog.

Poor Darling!

It’s funny that fear of a book’s content is often combated by a snarky deed, a single evil star. So it was that I learned how Book trolls can play overly-concerned, conscientious adults snuffing out a book before it sees the light of day. That’s a little twisted, though. Book trolls playing overly-concerned, censoring adults – why they are considered book trolls? Here’s what I believe about that.

I believe that book trolls are begotten accidentally from genetically normal, avid readers who skip meals. Then, around midnight, when they become voraciously hungry, they hastily eat spider sandwiches in the dark under dim reading lamps.

These are the foxes who run through the fields of Amazon books ready for harvest with firebrands tied to their tails.

Maybe it is just Gremlins passing as sweet, innocent influencers begging for a new deal. But we must remember that Gremlins have rules.

The grandson secretly sells the mogwai to Randall, warning him to remember three important rules that must never be broken: do not expose the mogwai to light, especially sunlight, which will kill it, do not let it come in contact with water, and above all, never feed it after midnight.”

Gremlins rules

Hey, I don’t mind that the reviewers liking my picture book may include a caveat for an adult to be available to answer some questions. Not at all.

I agree. Picture books are best when a child sits down with an adult who preferably reads to them and talks them through the story with questions. Aren’t they?

The question still makes me queazy.

Is it a good idea to scare little children at all?

When I was very young, I came across the story of Scuffy the Tugboat at a doctor’s office. Scuffy thought he was made for more important things than swimming in a bathtub. When his little boy took him to swim in the river, the current carried him far into a gushing flood zone and then in the sea. I remember feeling so frightened to see the huge tugboats and ships and to hear their horns through the eyes and ears of poor Scuffy.

Thankfully, Scuffy was saved by the little boy who had come to the sea just that day.

The Brothers Grimm believed it was not only okay, but good to frighten children about the wolf in Red Riding Hood. Was he the woodsman? Who was he? But, that’s the point, isn’t it – to beware of strangers?

Chris Roberts, the author of Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, tells Debbie Elliott in an NPR interview, “Childhood is a relatively recent phenomena, certainly over the last couple of hundred years, that children are seen as very separate from adults. So there would be no reason in the past not to have what would now be considered adult themes in rhymes that children could hear and sing.” (All Things Considered, October 2, 2005)

Apparently the publishers of Grimm’s Fairy Tales also believed the books would sell because wise parents and avid readers of well-written entertainment would buy.

“Plants raised with tenderness are seldom strong;
Man’s coltish disposition asks the thong;
And without discipline, the favorite child,
Like a neglected forester, runs wild.”

Samuel Philip

From first grade on, my teachers joined my mother in warning me not to talk to strangers. Even if they offered candy. Even if they offered to give you a ride home from school. My teacher had us memorize the phone number of the local police station. I hope it was helpful to someone.

Nearing the end of a favorite children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, on the night before an expected trip to the sea, the rabbit is thrown into the trash heap and overhears that he is destined for destruction by fire in the morning, making a tear roll down his face.

I’d forgotten how frightening that story became!

Parents should probably never allow the fear of God to come near their children. Neither should children be told that God’s Son died on a cross for their sins because they would not understand the gruesomeness of the good news – sins being separated from their beings – nor the idea of their own misbehaviors at age five, six, or seven being layered for punishment. Though love and fear do not go along hand in hand easily, I personally, had parents who embodied deep love and also a much feared anger.

As Walt Disney understood, isn’t it the point of a good scare to remind us that evil and opposites exist in the same geography? That there can be good news in the land of the living and in the land of the dead? Yes, a bit of sweet salvation goes a long way when we are frightened.

Enjoy the fall holidays, everybody. Enjoy the election season terrors. Enjoy reading and discussing great children’s literature with your own littles. May you reach for a tassel of wisdom, and may you keep your hand.

Darling Hedgehog Goes Down a Foxhole Book Launch Tour

©Capture Books, 2020

Contributing author, Auralee Arkinsly, speaks to parents and little children about writing stories, the value of stories, and specifically the value of good humor in storytelling. Book her now here.

https://www.amazon.com/Darling-Hedgehog-Goes-Down-Foxhole-ebook/dp/B07X534T28/
Preteen Fantasy by Charmayne Hafen
The Zealots, coming soon. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08L9HMQCJ

18 thoughts on “Is It a Good Idea to Scare Little Kids?”

  1. Great food for thought on fear. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Fear in the form of Awe of God is always a good thing. Read and loved Darling Hedgehog. Looking for more adventures and lessons about life’s danger zones.

  2. I read this blog with great interest. This particular holiday, Halloween, has always been a favorite of mine, as it’s my birthday. However, as I gather with my grandkids, I have purposely avoided “the dark side’… no skeletons, witches, zombies, and the like – just fun! You make a good point about the decorations at Halloween. I think they can be truly evil… ghosts, goblins, gravestones, spiders, and more! Evil does exist, of course, but do we need to celebrate it?

  3. Very interesting and thought provoking. I must say I had never stopped to think about it but I also did not purposefully scare my children or grandkids. I think younger children should be protected. Thanks

    1. Thank you, Kristie. Thank you for being a thinker. You are welcome here at any time and highly appreciated. How can we make you more comfortable? A better seat? What are you drinking? 🙂

  4. Recently l was walking in a store and there was a scary display in the Halloween section right as you entered the store. And this mother decided to show her little girl (guess of her age 3 maybe) and this poor child had the most outrageous scare ever and she started screaming. I personally looked as did many other people and thought how awful to think this was a nice thing to do. That little girl may forget but l quietly prayed. Because many may not see the light, but we can pray that they will! Wonderful post!

  5. What a thought provoking article. I will think about this a lot. My own tendency, when my kids were growing up, was to protect them from frightening things. I can remember some encounters I had with scary stuff (on tv, for example) as a very small girl which still stay with me. On the other hand, I feel I could have helped teach my kids more resilience and strength to overcome. They do great, though, I must say, in being strong people.

  6. Great food for thought on shielding our children from any and all fear. Fear of punishment, death, and hell because of my sin led me to the Saviour as a just-turned thirteen-year-old. That fear was awakened in me at twelve years old after seeing a movie about hell and having been taught about sin and hell growing up. This post came at just the right time for me today as a writer myself. Have been wondering whether to include something in my next book as I want it appropriate for all ages. Your post helped remind me that children need all the truth. Not just the blessing promises of God. But knowledge of the hard truths, as well. Thank you for this timely post!

  7. Chris Robert’s statement in the NPR interview is very insightful. We tend create a different world for our kids that is completely separate from adulthood. It wasn’t always so.

  8. I love all your thoughts here. I think I wavered back and forth with each kid about what was appropriate for them. I had one who gobbled up Grimm fairytales and now writes her own because she could understand the meaning and talk through them with me. She was fascinated. But I had another one who wouldn’t sleep for days after reading one and we had to put those books away until she was older. Then I had a child who could care less one way or the other. Such different personalities and so different answers to this question based on their individual needs. Loved thinking through this. Thanks!

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