How can I get my son to wear a costume?

Smart love - October 2006


The Piepers

Q. My 3-year-old is really looking forward to Halloween, but he says he won't wear a costume. He insists that he doesn't want to "turn into someone else." I have suggested costumes of his favorite TV characters, such as Elmo, but he absolutely refuses.

His school has a Halloween parade, and trick-or-treating is very big in our neighborhood. I am afraid he will be teased for not having a costume and that some people will refuse to give him treats. This sounds like a small thing, but Halloween is really important to him. I worry that it will be a disaster. Any suggestions on getting him into a costume?

P.F., Northbrook

A.This is not an uncommon fear among the 3-and-under set. Many children that age are afraid of what wearing a costume might do to them. There is no point in trying to reason or argue, because your son will outgrow this fear-probably by next Halloween. Rather, slip under his radar. Suggest that he go as himself, put a costume on the dog if you have one, or dress up yourself.

If any part of the family is in costume, there should be no problem with trick-or-treating. For the school parade, perhaps you can outfit a broom with a ghost costume so that he can bring the "costume" separately. If you let your creative juices flow, we are sure Halloween will be fun rather than frightening.

Trying to keep our child from being selfish

Q. I read your column and bought a copy of your book, Smart Love. Your ideas seem very kind and caring, but I worry that if they are applied in the real world, children will end up egocentric and spoiled, thinking they should always get their way. I was always taught "Others first, myself second," and I have to think that is the way to raise good people. I would be very interested in your response, because otherwise I think your approach is very appealing.

L.N., Oak Park

A.In reality, the Smart Love approach to child-rearing should produce children who are especially generous and compassionate and not at all egocentric or "spoiled." Because children learn by imitation, kind, caring responses that are tailored to a child's developmental stage teach children kindness and compassion toward themselves and others.

Trying to force children to share or to be altruistic before they are old enough to choose those virtues for themselves causes resentment and teaches coercion as a model for making others do as you want. Moreover, our approach does not amount to permissiveness. Permissiveness can produce children who behave in ways adults term "spoiled" because this approach amounts to the absence of the kind of help and guidance children need.

Children of permissive parents are unable to tolerate frustration and, consequently, can be out of control. In contrast, "Smart Love' principles offer parents an effective way to manage children's behavior in an age-appropriate and loving manner. So follow your instincts to love and enjoy your children. In doing so, you will help them, not harm them.

Encouraging young children to care for their teeth

Q. My 6-year-old refuses to brush his teeth. We have tried everything from bribery to taking away favorite foods, but nothing works. He doesn't really give a reason except that he "hates" to do it. He has already had cavities in his baby teeth and his dentist says he has to brush at least once a day. We are truly at our wits' end. Please advise.

T.C., Evanston

A. Tooth-brushing has become a power struggle between you and your son. This is the first problem that must be addressed. Sometimes, making tooth-brushing a joint effort is all that is needed to solve this problem. Tell your son that you are going to brush your teeth and ask if he would like to brush alongside you in your bathroom.

Another approach is to take him to the drugstore and let him pick out the toothbrush and toothpaste of his choice. Then, see if he would like to start by "brushing" one of his toys or bath animals. The goal is to engage his interest and sense of fun so that he doesn't feel he is losing a battle when he brushes his teeth. If you take this approach, we feel certain his reluctance will fade.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. are co-authors of the best-selling parenting book Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline that Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (for additional Smart Love resources, visit The Piepers also wrote Addicted to Unhappiness, which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.


Here's your chance to get some answers to your pressing parenting questions. If you're trying to figure out how to handle some aspect of your child's behavior, send your question to Chicago Parent Q&A, 141 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302; or e-mail it to The Piepers will respond to three questions per month. Sorry-they are unable to respond to questions that they do not answer for publication.

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For a more complete understanding of the Piepers' philosophy and psychology, read their book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Alternative to Discipline That Will Make You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person.

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