Bedtime Stories for Kids: Should You Say No to Scary?

By Willow Breckenridge | Feb 5, 2021

Do your kids love nothing more than a good bedtime story? This nightly ritual helps you to bond with your little one — but what if you have reservations about their choice of reading material? 

Some kids love nothing more than a good ghost tale before they doze off, but few parents relish the thought of waking up to nightmare-inspired screams. Should you say no to scary bedtime stories for kids? Only you can ultimately decide, but here are some arguments to consider. 

Arguments Against Scary Bedtime Stories

Let’s start with the bad news first. Developmentally, your child might not be able to handle storybook monsters until they are much older. 

According to Joann Cantor, PhD, a professor emerita of communication at University of Wisconsin, kids can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality until the age of five or six. Even if you explain that the frumious bandersnatch doesn’t really exist, your four-year-old could still consider it real. 

Many parents wonder that the violence in scary stories could increase aggressive tendencies in their child. They can draw some comfort from a recent study on video games. 

Researchers from Illinois State University altered the video game “Doom II” to make it more or less violent. They then had participants play the game and complete an emotional screening writing activity afterward. They found no evidence that those who played the most violent versions exhibited more aggression. 

When it comes to how stories influence behavior, the underlying theme might reveal more. According to Lawrence Sipe, PhD, a professor of children’s literature at the University of Pennsylvania, books like Harry Potter, while scary, nevertheless feature the triumph of good over evil, giving children a sense that the world is inherently safe. 

Conversely, stories that don’t have a happy ending could make kids feel less secure. While there’s plenty of precedent for using tales to scare kids into behaving, they need first to know that doing the right thing will lead to desirable outcomes. Imagine the story of the “Three Little Pigs” if the wolf rented a backhoe and decimated the smart piggy’s brick house. 

Therefore, if you aren’t familiar with the story, you have a solid argument for making your little ones wait. It’s also inadvisable to entertain your kids with dark stories from the north until they become old enough to go to school all day. 

The Case for a Good Sleepytime Scare

That said, you can also make an argument for letting kids enjoy scary tales. After all, the world is a dangerous place. You can’t keep your children from the horrors of it forever, and these tales teach kids that fear is natural and acceptable instead of forcing them to repress it. 

A juicy horror story is also a lot like a roller coaster ride. Even though you might feel terrified, you climb aboard, anyway, secure enough that you aren’t about to recreate a scene from “Final Destination.” Scary stories let your kids process the emotion of fear in a safe environment so that they feel better prepared to address real-world crises. 

The right scary stories can teach crucial life lessons. Experts may never know how many teenagers said no to parking with their lovers on deserted country lanes because they heard a tale of the man with a hook for a hand. A healthy dose of fear can keep your child from taking unnecessary risks, like wandering off in the dark, a behavior you want to discourage. 

Finally, many parents have to prod their children to read more. If scary stories get them to pick up a book, you might indulge their interest for the mental and academic benefits — even if it keeps them up late reading by flashlight under the covers. 

Questions to Ask When Deciding What Material Is Appropriate for Your Kids

Before you let your child read scary stories — or share a terrifying tale at bedtime — ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How old is my child? You should wait at least until your little one enters kindergarten if not older. 
  • How sensitive is my child? Some children are more sensitive than others. If your little one is the sort to cry at touching television commercials, horror might not be an appropriate genre. 
  • Does my child have a history of nightmares or night terrors? This question speaks more to you as a parent. Few relish the thought of waking up to tears night after night, and you need your beauty rest, too. If your child frequently has bad dreams, why add more nightmare-fuel to the mix? 
  • Does my child exhibit signs of anxiety? If your child shows signs that they may have an anxiety disorder, hold off on the horror books for now. While reading such tales won’t necessarily make their condition worse, why risk it? 

Should You Say No to Scary Bedtime Stories for Kids? It Depends on Your Unique Child

Ultimately, the question of whether you should say no to scary bedtime stories for kids boils down to your unique little one. Some kids thrive on terror, but if yours has a sensitive temperament, stick to goblin-free tales. 

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