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Parents, don't be Hallo-weenies

By Jeff Pearlman, Special to CNN
updated 7:17 AM EDT, Thu October 31, 2013
This locally famous "haunted house" is on one of the busiest streets in Beijing. Now that Halloween has rolled around, locals are flocking to the century-old building for seasonal thrills. This locally famous "haunted house" is on one of the busiest streets in Beijing. Now that Halloween has rolled around, locals are flocking to the century-old building for seasonal thrills.
HIDE CAPTION
Building no. 81
Caution: This place is haunted. Maybe
Sound effect-equipped
What phantom wouldn't want to live here?
The ghosts of bureaucracy
Halloween's popularity grows in Beijing
Scared yet?
Not everything is authentic
House of birthday horrors
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Pearlman: Daughter feared roller coaster, rode it, loved it. Same with Halloween scares
  • He says parents should let their kids get a little terrified at Halloween. It's good for them
  • Parents should support, explain, use heads on appropriateness but not overly shield
  • Pearlman: Kids can confront fear, emerge feeling proud, brave. We coddle too much

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman blogs at jeffpearlman.com. His most recent book is "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton." Follow him on twitter @jeffpearlman.

(CNN) -- 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."

Jeff Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman

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!"

It was.

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."

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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.

"It's not about age," Taback said. And then there is common sense: "What you need to be aware of is what's developmentally appropriate. Blood and guts flying out from the ceiling atop a 6-year old probably isn't the best thing."

Then again, she said, "At least if a parent is there, it can explained and grasped. Children can be very concrete. So they need an outlet to discuss these things. Haunted houses can be a lot of fun for young kids. So can Halloween. But it's valuable to have an adult nearby."

Halloween is about candy and masks, but it's also about crossing that comfort line: a crazy day when a kid can stroll through a haunted house, ring a doorbell and see the unfamiliar face of someone who gives him or her candy, talk about ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. It should be a little scary; let them handle it.

More than ever, parents today seem obsessively determined to do more than merely observe and (if needed) explain. We unnecessarily hold our kids back a year of school in the name of "getting ahead." We present every member of every youth team with a season-ending medal, even if they went 0-11 and scored -23 goals. We kick off the school year by demanding principals place our precious darlings with just the right teacher in just the right environment with just the right classmates. We coddle and comfort and make certain no step will be taken without a fluffy pillow to fall back upon.

Well, to hell with that. Unless your child is absolutely petrified beyond belief (like, ahem, my son), find the nearest haunted house, plunk down the $20 and take your children for the most frightening little walk of their lives.

Then watch as they scream their heads off -- and rave about it right after.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.

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