Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, from when I was 5 and my mom made my Big Bird costume out of a paper grocery bag to the year I glued Play-doh horns to my forehead in a messy attempt at a devil.
Now that I'm a parent, my kids and I take our costumes seriously. And I love seeing what they'll choose. There was the year my son wanted to be a firefighter AND a princess (he wore a red plastic coat over his big sister's party dress). And the time my kindergartener wanted to be Michael Jackson, but then changed her mind after I'd made the costume. Last year, our entire family went as characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Books, TV, and pop culture are great places to get inspiration for Halloween costumes. But for the last few years, our elementary school Halloween parade has been more about mass marketing than inspiration. From boys in puffed up Iron Man garb and girls lost in reams of Little Mermaid organza, the marketing machine seems to have sucked all the creativity out of a holiday that begs for imagination -- not shopping.
It's not surprising that marketers are working hard to dress up little kids. In 2011 consumers are expected to spend $1 billion on kids' costumes -- just part of the nearly $7 billion on total Halloween spending. While there's nothing wrong with buying supplies for celebrations, if kids are limited to dressing up in costumes chosen by marketers, they'll quickly run out of options -- not to mention imagination. And if we want to steer kids away from commercialism, branded Halloween costumes are part of the slippery slope that can lead to the backpack, the pencil case, and the pajamas. Branded costumes also tend to squeeze kids into strict gender roles -- like sexy girls and violent boys -- which can send problematic messages to impressionable minds. Before you know it, this year's Ariel will want to be Katy Perry in a cupcake bra.
But there is a way to take control back from marketers and retailers and have fun in the process. It doesn't need to take more time than grabbing something off the rack, and it's a chance to get kids' creative juices flowing, save some money, and maybe even express your values to your kids.
1. Foster creativity. If kids want to dress up like a character from a TV show or movie, ask them to create the costume out of stuff in the house. My Big Bird costume was no more than a paper grocery bag and some leftover yellow party streamers.
3. Think thrift. Thrift stores are great resources for costumes and a way to sidestep consumerism in a quick and easy way. Many shops are filled with almost-new costumes you can buy off the rack or embellish with a few special touches. What used to be a giant yellow M&M becomes a cute bumblebee with some black stripes and fairy wings.
4. Let go. Just like my son's fireman-ballerina costume, Halloween is about letting kids experiment with dressing up. Kids don't need to look perfect -- if they like their costume that's all that matters.
5. Be brainy. Here's something you won't see at the costume store: puns. Two people tied together = A PEAR. A big "P" on a shirt and a blackened eye = A BLACK-EYED PEA. Kids love the looks on people's faces when they reveal their puns -- and this approach challenges kids' imaginations more than your wallet.