Halloween Matters (Part II): An Immigrant Family, Christian, and Feminist Parenting Perspective by Grace Yia-Hei Kao


Halloween 2010

“[W]e have not gone the store-bought, costume-in-a-bag route, even though we recognize that the proliferation of ready-made options is a godsend to time-strapped, dual-career parents.”

This is a second part of a previous post about the shifting personal importance of Halloween.  Now that I’m a mother of two young boys, I find that my husband and I are constantly looking for teachable opportunities. The holidays have accordingly become excellent ways for us not only to spend quality time together, but also to impart our values. We manifest our commitments even in something as simple as costume choices, as I explain below.

(1)    We do not indulge the Manichean-like stage that our four-year old child is in. As befitting a boy his age, our primo is fascinated by superheroes and has asked on a number of occasions if he could be one for Halloween.

Our answer thus far has been no.

To be clear, we see nothing in principle problematic about young children aspiring to be bigger, stronger, or justice-seeking. Our problem with the cartoon or comic-book world of superheroes is that it often reduces all people into “good guys” and “bad guys” and thus provides a distorted picture of where evil is to be found.

So we find ourselves constantly reminding primo that there are no good and bad people, there are people who make good or bad (or better or worse) choices. Until he is old enough to really understand that, we don’t think allowing him to dress-up like Superman or Batman would be best for his moral development.

Our parenting strategy re: superheroes is continuous with the way we handle the issue of weapons−another one of primo’s current obsessions. (He loves to ask the police officers he bumps into on the street if he can see their gun and regularly asks us if he could have or even touch one of the (toy) weapons he always manages to spot whenever we go shopping).

On this score, we also sound like a broken record. We regularly tell him some version of the following: “Guns are not toys; they are weapons that could seriously hurt or even kill people. When you are old enough and if you are still interested, we’ll take you to a shooting range where you can hold and shoot a real gun. But for now, you must not think of guns as toys.”

(2)    We are intentional about scrutinizing our consumer choices.

We resent the mindset that any holiday (Christmas included) should center on buying new stuff. For the sake of the environment, good stewardship of our resources, personal cost-savings, and to indulge our (infrequently employed) creative sides, we follow the reduce-reuse-recycle (or even upcycle) mantra where we can.

With respect to Halloween costumes, this has meant that we have not gone the store-bought, costume-in-a-bag route, even though we recognize that the proliferation of ready-made options is a godsend to time-strapped, dual-career parents.

Fortunately, primo’s first Halloween costumes involved no additional expense on our part. His uncle who had been living and working in Japan for some time and then-girlfriend (now wife), had given him a yukata or casual Japanese kimono made of cotton. We felt that it was cute, sufficiently costumey, and not politically incorrect (since one of the givers was herself a Japanese national), which is why primo wore it two years in a row.

We scavenged what we already hade in our household for primo’s third and segundo’s first Halloween costumes and then supplemented what we found with a few items from the craft store.  Our 9-month old segundo last year went as ebi sushi. He already had dozens of white onesies from which to choose, and the shrimp, seaweed, and wasabi parts of his costume were created by some white paint, 5 pieces of felt (for $.20 a piece), and basic sewing skills.

Primo’s SCUBA diver costume last year (his choice, based upon his then-obsession with the diver in Finding Nemo), was also mostly pulled together from what we already had. We supplemented his swim suit and rash guard, my snorkel and dive mask, some black tubing from our garage, his little brother’s pacifier for his regulator, and an empty bottle of tonic water for the dive tank with the following additional items: a small can of silver spray paint ($3.00) and several pieces of blue, red, and white craft foam to make the dive flag and flippers (costing under $2.00). [See fig. 1 for the frontal view for the flippers.]

(3)    We aspire to “equally shared” parenting.

Marc and Amy Vachon, authors of Equally Shared Parenting: Reinventing the Rules for a New Generation of Parents describe this parenting style thusly:

“Imagine a life without having to choose between a meaningful career and enough time with your children….You

are fully competent as a parent rather than an understudy or manager to your spouse, and you have an energized marriage with a fun and happy partner….[E]qually shared parenting…stands in sharp contrast to the traditional marriage with children, in which the man works and the woman stays home, or the ‘supermom’ marriage, in which the man works and the woman tries to balance a career with the lion’s share of the childcare and household tasks.  Equally shared parenting is more than an extension of feminism; it is more than simply what is fair. Equally sharing the care of your children with your partner is about balancing your life, balancing your family’s collective life and sharing equally in the joys of raising a family.

Our definition of equally shared parenting is this:  The purposeful practice of two parents sharing equally in the domains of childraising, housework, breadwinning, and time for self.”

We believe in this full human flourishing and egalitarian (vs. workaholic and “male headship”) model of parenting and living, even though it is imperfectly realized in our case. What we love about the holidays, then, is the ritual reminders of the importance of stepping out of our patterns of everyday living to spend quality, mind-expanding time with our children. This past year that has meant that we took primo and segundo to their first pumpkin patch festival. In fact, they will have gone to 5 other Halloween-themed parties or events by the time the 2011 season is over. Yes, we’re exhausted (but hey, I wasn’t kidding when I said that we aspire to but have yet to actualize in our lives a healthy work-life balance).

The “equally shared” element of our parenting is reflected even in the way their 2011 costumes came to be. From the brainstorming stage to execution, my husband and I shared the labor in ways that occasionally broke with traditional gender roles. I found the base of their Where the Wild Things Are costumes at a local thrift store. With basic sewing skills, I transformed a $4 bunny costume into Max’s wolf suit. (That also involved buying two $.50 stuffed teddy bears and then skinning and deplushing them to turn one into the wolf’s tail and the other to a piece of fur on Max’s crown, itself a $1 purchase at the craft store). My husband’s contribution came in the form of sewing on the whiskers (black pipe cleaners) and then making and sewing on the 4 fabric-covered buttons. Yes, you read that correctly– my man can sew! :) We also jointly made Max’s scepter out of a repurposed cat toy (for the wand), a gold Christmas ornament, cut-up cereal boxes, and silver spray paint (leftover from his Halloween 2010 costume).

Segundo’s get-up was similarly a $3 thrifted lion costume that I transformed by painting on orange stripes, removing the lion’s mane, and attaching a different tail and the beard for the “wild thing” using a similar skinning/deplushing of stuffed animals technique. My husband designed and stuffed the horns (from a $.20 piece of grey felt) and drew in the scales of his pants with a black sharpie pen.

While I was doing the bulk of the costumes, my husband was working diligently on the boat (the kids’ radio flyer wagon transformed by some cardboard, paint, and some muslin we already had for the sail). Here, the roles were reversed: he did the majority of the design and implementation and I served mostly in an advisory role.

All told, making their costumes has been a labor of love. We know that our boys will not be able to appreciate our make vs. buy (or the buy second-hand vs. buy new) decisions, but it is our hope that someday they will. At the very least, primo is totally thrilled about his costume and his boat and has even forgotten, for the time being anyway, his incessant “can I be Spiderman?” requests.

Have a safe, wonderful, and fun-filled Halloween!

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. Read more about her work on her website.


Categories: Children, General, holiday, parenting

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

17 replies

  1. I really loved your posts this week Grace. Now that I am a new mother and preparing for my first Halloween, reading about your own parenting perspectives has had a great impact on me.

    We actually are doing something similar as you did with primo and the kimono – our nephew sent our daughter a Cleveland Browns Cheerleader outfit (since we are from Cleveland and our family members are huge Browns fans) and so we thought it would be the perfect Halloween costume. Reading your post helped me realize that this was a good choice for more reasons than one – and a tradition we should hang onto – utilizing what is in our home rather than falling into consumerism (something I too often partake in!).

    I also loved what you had to share about “equally shared” parenting – something my husband and I also aspire to (my man can sew too!). It is so important to set the example for our children.

    Thanks for writing this terrific series – it genuinely had an impact on me. :)


    • I’m glad – becoming a parent reminded me of planning for our wedding (in term of how much society tells you to buy…) The consumerist impulse is strong and it is undoubtedly a struggle (and it also involves in our case “retraining” our friends and family, e.g., as we have gently instructed them to donate to their favorite charity in our children’s honor instead of buying gifts on their birthdays). But I believe it is wort it!


  2. Dear Dr. Kao,

    Wonderful (double) post! There are a lot of great reflections here, many of which I’ll have to ponder about for a while. Please know that in my own reflections below, I tried to speak about my own experiences, since I was uncomfortable writing about your family–it was not my intent anywhere in this response to talk about how you should raise your children, for instance. Instead, I wanted to reflect about your more general inductive conclusions. I myself grew up in a family that emphasized thriftiness (in Halloween costumes and elsewhere), so, with the help of my dad (with more help from him when I was younger), I made most of my costumes. I treasure those memories – I still remember my stormtrooper costume my dad and I made out of recycled cardboard tubes.

    I am very intrigued by the Vachons’ book. In my own case, since my mother died when I was four, my dad had to be the “childrais[er], housework[er], breadwinn[er];” it was not a matter of choice, and until my dad remarried (practically speaking, not even after, since interactions between step parents and children are very rarely “ideal”), sharing these roles equally with anyone was not even a possibility. Reflecting now, I am astounded that my dad managed to balance those tasks so well (particularly within our patriarchal culture), and I am equally astounded (keeping in mind the obvious connection to my mother’s death) that I did not grow up feeling more ambivalent about this reality. Why did I not grow up thinking that a dad “playing” the roles of childraiser and houseworker was a sad necessity (when the mother is absent) rather than a valid feminist concern? Perhaps as a child, I perceived that my dad had fully embraced the roles rather than reluctantly accepted them. Or perhaps, my parents were good at sharing the roles before my mother died. I’m not sure. I am curious how you think your reflections on equal parenting might apply to single-parent (or non-traditional households more broadly) households? Do you think there are insights that one can glean from the Vachons’ book for these cases?

    Lastly, I appreciated your discussion of superhero costumes and child moral development, particularly your point about wanting your child to know “that there are no good and bad people, there are people who make good or bad (or better or worse) choices.” I completely agree. However, I am not sure that you are entirely fair to the moral complexity of superhero mythology (comics, tv shows, films, etc.). Undoubtedly, there are very shallow superhero tales that repeat the moral structure you describe in narrative form. I would actually argue that this is probably true of most genres. There are also many morally complex and thoughtfully reflective superhero tales. As just one example, take Christopher Nolan’s expressions of the Batman mythos. I would argue that it isn’t always clear if Batman is purely a “good” person, and he certainly engages in some morally reprehensible acts (that the narrative itself seems to be self-conscious about).

    Of course, my point is not to advocate that young children should see Nolan’s rather dark, adult Batman films. My point is that these stories often make the very point (about good and bad choices) that you uphold as valuable. This is not just true of the “adult” superhero narratives, like Nolan’s tales. I grew up watching the (90s) Spiderman cartoon. I watched it every Saturday morning. Both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” were incredibly complex for a children’s cartoon. In fact, the dominant themes of the show were that Peter Parker was very, very human, with all the flaws and limitations that come with being human, and the related problems that emerged when this finite being had superpowers. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Peter’s uncle tells him just before dying. Peter continually falls short of this goal exactly because the point of the show is that he is not naturally good. He has to make good choices, moment to moment, something he doesn’t always succeed in accomplishing. On the flipside, something similar is true of the villains – Spiderman’s nemeses like the Lizard, Doctor Octupus and Green Goblin are not only real people, but are connected to Parker in his personal life. These connections lead to situations that illustrate that the “villains” are also complicated people that also struggle with life-matters. Perhaps the best way to put it is that the show illustrates that superheros and supervillains are not just masks, but people, and people that can make good and bad choices, choices that do not always correspond to the “hero/villain” binary status.

    Of course, superhero mythology certainly has problems – rampant sexism (particularly in the depiction of female characters) being a common problem in a lot of the narratives. Even this is not universal, however, and many superhero tales (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for instance) have become flagship artistic examples of feminist consciousness. In my own case, growing up watching and reading superhero mythology certainly had some mixed results. I (still) often find that my daydreams involve me playing the role of “the hero,” something that, self-reflexively, I feel ambivalent about. On one hand, I think I appreciate these daydreams because I appreciate the sense of empowerment I feel from them (in contrast to some of the disempowering experiences I’ve had). On the other hand, these dreams can obscure the role I play in sexist (and other) structures through a kind of paternalism—they can encourage me to see situations and even people as in need of my efforts alone for “salvation.”

    And yet, these same stories encouraged me to see the moral complexity that you write about. They helped me to dream of better worlds and worse ones, and really think about moral issues even when I was five. Perhaps my point, then, is to simply suggest that genres (because they encompass so many different stories) possess (even conceal) a great deal of diversity, some of which can have positive effects on children (and adults) and some of which can have negative effects on children (and adults). This does not mean that these stories cannot be rightly rejected. It simply means that evaluation should occur on a case by case basis. To put it another way, drawing inspiration from your point about moral development, there are no good and bad genres, there are particular narratives that suggest good or bad (or better or worse) themes.


    • Drew – thanks for sharing. Re: equally-shared parenting with solo parents, my quick response is simply that solo parents (due to death, divorce/separation, long-time absences, or choice) simply do not have the same questions of trying to figure out who should do what (unless they have made other co-parenting arrangements) and thus the feminist concern about the “double day” for one parent (but not the other) simply doesn’t occur. Other principles (e.g., work-life balance, full human flourishing) would apply.

      I especially appreciated your description of the complex mythology of superheroes and I take your point that my blog failed to appreciate that. I, too, grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons and had a brother who collected comic books. As an adult, I’ve also seen various movies of comics come to life (e.g., Batman, Spiderman) and so I’m familiar with the complexity of which you speak. But as a child, I don’t recall noticing this complexity. And primo’s school tries to encourage the kids away from superheroes play, since for them that generally devolves into good guy-bad guy role-playing and then, of course, more violence.

      But I take your point and you need not tread so lightly with your gentle push-back! Thanks again for writing.


  3. Geez, why not let the poor child choose his own costumes. I recall my Mom putting me in a Princess costume at the age of 4, but was very happy to be a scuba diver, and a Spanish Conquistador in later years. We made our own costumes, and it was a great happy time.

    Halloween is a great giant gay celebration in most major cities. And even as an adult, I enjoy wearing a pirate costume and bringing my replica 16th century Spanish pistol.

    No toy guns! I had to battle to get my parents to give me toy guns for Christmas… hey, I was not a gender conforming pink wearing girl. I wanted weaponry to do battle with the boys on my block. Fond memory of finally getting a toy bazooka complete with bright blue plastic shells, where I happily put the hated dolls on a fence and blasted them with the bazooka.

    If your little girl wanted to be Supergirl, would you let her do it?

    Parents of today take all the spontaeous fun out of Halloween, and I kind of feel sorry for your poor overmanaged child.

    Let us not forget that Halloween is sacred to radical lesbian and radical feminist pagans worldwide. You know, the ancestors the fundamentalist christians of another time burned at the stake. Halloween is about the rebellion of gays and lesbians against oppressive heteronormative worlds, and back in the day, it was the one time police didn’t raid our bars or demand we wear three items of “female” clothing. Thank the goddess I’m not a little lesbian girl stuck in a hetero home today! Yeah, it got a lot better!!

    But the poor boy, I don’t know.


    • Turtle Woman: a few points, my segundo is a boy (not girl). I appreciate and respect the fact that different parents make different choices for their children. My blog was designed as a reflection on my values and I fully appreciate that many (if not most) parents won’t hold our same views. In any event, I’m glad that Halloween continues to be a fun holiday for you, too.


  4. Dear Dr. Kao,

    You must keep this correspondence for posterity. Your boys will enjoy it when they get older. I love the sushi costume. And thanks for the pricing the felt.

    We should have a Santa toilet seat making party. Not kidding. I have the funniest felt toilet seat covers that I copied from my friend Dr. Nancy Ehrlich who studied hydrology and engineering at Johns Hopkins. (Just because I was the Betty Crocker homemaker of the year at my high school doesn’t mean I have a bunch of light-weight friends.)

    Anyhow, I once invited all of my girlfriends over to make the toilet seat covers. We had several sewing machines. And with those and a little Elmer’s glue we turned my house into a giant green, red, and white felt ball. I think Kathy Black would be down for it. Arts Council are you out there????

    And Turtle Woman — you gotta come. I’m certain I am not the only one who would love to put a face to the blog responses.

    One more thing. I gotta shout out to heaven to my dad. My dad was out of work for awhile in the mid-1960s. At that time elementary school had “room mothers” who helped arranged class outings. My dad was the only man I ever knew who went on field trips with us. He was politically very conservative so don’t get the idea that he was doing anything radical — he just obviously enjoyed kids and going to museums.



    • Love the idea of bonding over felt! Name the time and with some advance prep work (i.e., arrangements for babysitting, or, if it’s past 6:30pm the hubs to watch the kids), I’m there!


  5. Hi Grace,
    Before I start I have to say I too LOVE the sushi costume, so so so cute. My nephew (who is my immediate family’s first little one) is going as a dragon this year, and your sushi pic reminded me of his pic in the dragon costume b/c they both have that big smile! Anyways, Auntie gushing aside,
    I really appreciated both of your posts. I too, like Drew, did have the same response to the idea of no super heroes; but I really liked your response. Seeing those complexities is really really hard when you are so young. I immediately thought about how I grew up watching James Bond movies, loving them, only to revisit them in college through a class to discover that I’d never realized James Bond actually rapes a woman in Goldfinger to get her to switch sides, give up her lesbianism and embrace capitalism….. WOW. I do not enjoy James Bond anymore.
    I do however, still love comics and anime a great deal; though often feel conflicted as to the ultra sexualized portrayals of female characters. For example, I love Sailor Moon! In the Japanese, there are lesbian characters, there is a gender change transformation that happens with some of the sailor scouts and for the most part, all “bad guys” are “defeated” by sailor moon when she continues to love and believe in them despite their hurtful choices and they find themselves again. On the other hand, some of the characters are practically naked and the “prince/ princess” romance theme can be pretty heavy. ….
    The other point you bring up in part one that really hit home for me was the relationship with the evangelical friends you had in your youth; that idea of not allowing another to stumble. I too grew up evangelical and this was very very important to me. However, I eventually discovered that some people in my evangelical community did not always follow through in the same way– where I think some would have. Weirdly, this sometimes still “haunts” me; I think of things I didn’t say or do because, in my flipped around– take responsibility for everything distortion– I thought pointing out a hypocrisy would be too hurtful in light of those texts that demand we do not let our “brother’s” stubble…
    Thank you for your posts and for the way you relate value choices to this holiday!


    • Thank you for replying; at another time I’d be curious to hear more about the “haunted” experiences in your evangelical phase. I’ve found that most people who have shed their evangelical sensibilities do not emerged unscathed!

      As for Bond films and anime – I hear you. Sometimes I want (and actually do) take a moral holiday – I watch a Bond film or flip through a trashy tabloid or women’s magazine. But other times I can derive little to no entertainment value out of doing so for some of the reasons that you describe.


  6. Grace—I still can’t quite figure out what is wrong with a child choosing her or his own Halloween costume, that was what was confusing for me. It’s probably one of the most open and creative holidays we have here, and delightfully free.

    It seems that it might even be a reaction to the conservative christian juggernaught, because Halloween really is a very important gay high holiday. So it is also a resistance movement to enforced heteronormative narratives. Since this is feminism AND religion, it might be good to see Halloween as a lesbian or gay resistance and solidarity movement.

    The rise of the Halloween holiday is kind of amazing for me to watch. And also the subsequent decline of Thanksgiving… I really like both holidays, and as an adult, I actually have those two as my favorites. Christmas being too loaded with hetero oppression, or to sing that song “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” my partner and I changed the lyrics to “it’s the most hetero time of the year.”

    So is Halloween about the rise of capitalism, since the only thing we ever bought in the past was a pumpkin and candy for kids. Now, we see houses fully decorated with store bought stuff. Or is it a collective longing for pagan roots that is European tradition? And the decline of Thanksgiving might just be recognition of what whites really did to native peoples in the New World, and this horrifying situation isn’t quite as pretty anymore…. pilgrims…

    Halloween is also about generosity to strangers. Even in gang infested east Los Angeles, we all open our doors to kids saying “trick or treat.” Kids still go around at night here. To me it’s a cause for hope. And as for people behaving badly and not being evil… well I’m glad that I learned that people are and were actually evil. And to not know this puts a child at a disadvantage. But then again most liberal theology has always been a bit confusing to me.

    A bit jumbled here, but I have been watching the huge rise of Halloween in America for perhaps the last 20 years. It’s interesting.


    • So I read this days ago and have been pondering my response. It’s a complex topic.
      I’ll begin by noting that I wore a pink, fuzzy tiara to church yesterday:) Before you all think that UU are crazy, please know that there is context for this. Part of what my minister and I were demonstrating was the various significances of All Souls Eve, The Day of the Dead, and America’s version of Halloween. (Great recent New Yorker satire on this at http://www.newyorker.com/humor/2011/10/24/111024sh_shouts_semple?currentPage=al1).
      And my minister’s black witches cap wasn’t exactly feminine, so I felt we did well in not reinforcing patriarchial messages of men vs women.
      But here’s the shocking part: I really liked wearing my tiara! And for a self-defined lesbian generally most comfortable in jeans, boots, and a t-shirt, I needed to explore that further. What I liked, it turned out, was how individuals treated me. They saw me as vulnerable and more approachable. And then that just made me angry inside. Really — these folks that know me somehow feel more comfortable if I look like the media’s image of a girl? It made me want to go destroy every gender-specific constume out there, or at least switch all the male/female tags on the outfits!
      I love Halloween, but I fear that I will analyzing each cute like tyke that arrives at my door tonight from a feminist perspective.
      Thank you as always for your thought-provoking post.


    • Turtle woman – yes, there is something very sweet about opening up doors to children (of all ages) to pass-out candy and candy alternatives. I, too, would agree with the rising commercialism of Halloween, the LA Times just did a story about it: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/home_blog/2011/10/parentology-halloween-costumes-swapped-or-sold-used.html. Final point – as a parent I do affirm the ability of my children to make choices: primo selected the idea of his first costume (at age three); we vetoed his superhero costume ideas for his second Halloween (for the reasons I described previously), but then we brainstormed together some alternatives. When we settled on the Where the Wild Things Are, we let him decide which of the characters to be.

      I do not believe in affirming our children’s choices SIMPLY because they have chosen it. If in the future, primo wanted to go as Hitler (n.b., he doesn’t even know who Hitler is), something racist, or something otherwise in poor taste, we would veto it. So clearly we are not “permissive” parents (in an older three-part typology of permissive, authoritarian and authoritative, we are the latter).


    • Lara:

      Loved that link – so hilarious (and thanks for sharing). Wow, you noticed a difference in reaction to you based on one day (perhaps even a couple of hours) of wearing a tiara? That really is shocking.

      The pull of conforming to gender norms is so strong, the extent of which I really noticed a new when I became a first-time parent. The world of commercial shopping has mostly decided that white, yellow, and green are gender-neutral, but the pinks & purples are definitely for girls and the blues for boys. (And then the pinks and purples are embellished with flowers, etc. while the blues with athletic stuff).

      In any event, I still hope you have fun seeing the kids dressed-up in their costumes.


  7. Thanks for the explanation of parenting Grace. The Hitler choice would have challenged anybody! Yikes. I thought of you last night as the little kids yelled trick or treat, and I thought all the costumes this year were great. I was a little sad that almost all the costumes were completely store bought…. half the fun of Hollween when I was young was actually inventing and MAKING the costumes.

    And on our block, there were only two lit pumpkins! Ours, and the neighbors across the street… no coincidense that we were all from the midwest originally. As I recall, the only time my Mom picked a costume for me was when I was 4. I think I came up with the ideas after that.



  1. Halloween Matters: An Immigrant Family, Christian, and Feminist Parenting Perspective by Grace Yia-Hei Kao « Feminism and Religion
  2. Halloween Matters: An Immigrant Family, Christian, and Feminist Perspective | Dr. Grace Kao

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