From time to time, parents and even some educators have asked me about reading scary stories with young children. In some cases, they were concerned about how kids might react to a truly horrifying character or a particularly creepy situation. Sometimes, they were worried that a child might feel overwhelmed by the intensity of a scene. In other situations, they were afraid that kids might believe in the power of witchcraft or magic.
While these questions raise legitimate concerns and it would never be wise to expose a young child to Stephen King’s amazing books or Anne Rice’s vampire novels, scary stories can make a unique and valuable contribution to any child’s emotional development. The level of tension or creepiness of a characters always need to be taken into account when selecting a scary story for any child. When in doubt, I recommend asking a librarian, who can help select from “librarian approved scary stories” that are appropriately scary for the age and maturity of a particular child.
Fear is a powerful emotion that some scientist credit with helping our species survive. In fact, most humans have an instinctive fear of snakes, leeches, rats or spiders. The modern celebration of Halloween is one of the most highly anticipated fall events. Although Halloween originated over 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celts, today, adults as well as kids, look forward to dressing in costumes, visiting haunted houses, and telling scary stories. There’s definitely something about feeling afraid that is exciting and intriguing for kids of all ages, from 7 to 75.
With this background in mind, I would argue that scary stories are more important now than ever before in today’s increasingly “sanitized” world. Let’s explore how scary stories can effectively contribute to a child’s emotional and cognitive development.
1. Scary stories can model powerful life lessons
When we confront fear in a scary story, our bodies experience a “rush” of excitement from the chemical release of hormones, enabling us to experience and explore our fear from a safe distance. The pleasure of reading or listening to a really good scary story can be like the thrill of riding a speeding roller coaster around a blind curve and dropping thirty feet only to discover that we’re okay and actually enjoying the ride. Both experiences help kids exercise their emotions in a secure place with low risk of physical danger.
Frequently, we as adults, minimize the benefit in improved self-esteem that kids feel when they face their fears and discover that they are actually stronger than they thought. Learning that it’s okay to be afraid and that fear can actually be a useful emotion is an important lesson for any child.
Experiencing fear while reading a well-written book is a unique way for a child to learn to manage fear in order to achieve a desired result (seeing how the story ends). If a child never learns to experience and manage fear, then how will he or she learn to cope with their fears as they inevitably need to confront situations that can be overwhelming in life? Scary stories provide a unique way to experience fear in a “safe” place while learning that fears can be managed and used to move forward.
2. It’s okay to be afraid
Beyond the thrill or entertainment factor, we can help children learn that it’s okay to be afraid. Ghost stories demonstrate to children that it’s not only okay to be afraid, but fear can be useful in helping them learn how to solve problems. Award-winning author, Roberta Simpson Brown, “Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales” and a retired educator believes that scary stories teach children that it’s all right to be afraid. She even goes further to point out that scary stories help us realize that everyone is afraid of something and that it is healthy to face our fears.
Unfortunately, anxiety can sometimes feel overwhelming for young people and I sometimes wonder if we are “cheating” kids by not giving them incremental opportunities to experience fear and learn to accept that it’s okay to be afraid? Scary stories provide a simple, effective way to experience fears and practice managing or coping with anxiety in a low-risk situation.
3. Learning Resiliency
Think about it: childhood can be a very scary time for kids. Kids are smaller than adults, have less power than adults and are dependent on family and sometimes even strangers for care, feeding, and security. Those factors would be enough for many adults to feel anxious, especially if they were surrounded by people who were physically much larger and who exercised power over meeting their needs. Kids live in those conditions every day.
Fortunately, children flourish when they learn to use their emotional tools to effectively handle a range of life experiences. Sometimes as adults, we forget that starting school each fall, learning to ride a bike, performing a skit at school or moving to a new neighborhood are significant challenges for kids and can lead to feeling anxious or even feeling overwhelmed.
Today, we frequently reduce the risks of failing for kids, in order to make their lives feel safer. As a result, scary stories filled with an appropriate level of scary ghosts, monsters or trolls may help kids learn how to recognize a threatening situation, how to effectively respond to danger and even learn how to face their fears to solve a problem - especially when they’re scared. When a protagonist in a story confronts her fears to resolve a conflict and then conquers a scary, threatening enemy, kids observe a role-model for managing their fears and moving forward with their lives.
I believe that combining these three factors (entertaining power of feeling fear, learning that it’s okay to be afraid and internalizing resilient role models) helps kids prepare to manage the inevitable stresses of modern life. Stories that push kids out of their “safe zones” may actually build confidence and even foster a greater understanding of how to cope with threatening situations.
One thing we know for sure: well-written scary stories will continue to be loved by countless generations of young readers because they are just so much fun to experience and share.
So whenever kids have ten or fifteen spare minutes when assignments end before lunch, or it’s not quite time to pack up for the day, why not reach for a copy of Roberta Simpson Brown’s Scariest Stories Ever Told, Tim Tingle’s Spirits Light and Dark or The August House Book of Scary Stories and share a scary story or two?
Not only will kids love to listen to these classic stories, they may even learn some valuable life lessons.