The walking dead are everywhere these days. From the popular and addictive video game Plants vs. Zombies to sophisticated science learning tools like Squishy Zombie Science Kit, it seems like parents and kids can’t get away from terror-themed toys, no matter how fast they run!
The Toy Industry Association has even declared that “frightfully fun” products featuring mindless fiends and other scary creatures are one of the biggest toy trends of 2014. Even the family-friendly board game Monopoly has come out with a new version of the game Monopoly: The Walking Dead, based on the TV show.
Moms and dads can feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of games and toys featuring zombies and other gross-out ghouls—so what’s a parent to do?
Dr. Cindy Dell-Clark, a psychologist and cultural anthropologist at Rutgers University, says that for the most part, you can relax. “Monsters are nothing new in kid culture,” she says. “The gross and disgusting have always been appealing to a certain age group. At around third grade, it’s natural for children, especially boys, to start becoming interested in things that transgress the norms.”
This doesn’t mean that you should abandon all caution when choosing playthings for your child. Keep the following guidelines in mind when evaluating toys and learning tools with scary or gross “creature features.”
- Age matters. Kids react differently to scary or graphic material depending on their age. Before about age 7, children are very literal and they take what they see seriously. It’s hard for these very young children to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Pay careful attention to age guidelines on games, toys, and apps. Try to limit time with toys that seem too intense, or ban them altogether.
- All monsters are not equal. There are monsters, and then there are MONSTERS! Cute cartoon creatures that just pretend to be scary and grossly graphic zombies that are shedding body parts are very different things. Remember the movie Monsters, Inc.? Pretty adorable! But an action figure with removable brains? Not suitable for very young children—and not just because of the small parts! Use common sense and exercise caution, especially with children under age 7.
- Getting used to gross. There will come a time when your previously timid tot will start wanting to be scared and/or will begin to be attracted to icky and out-of-bounds stuff. Don’t worry—it’s perfectly normal. In fact, says Dr. Dell-Clark, it’s a sign of healthy psychological development. “When kids around age 8 to 10 start becoming fascinated by things that break the rules, it means that they’re starting to understand the rules and norms and that they’re testing them.”
- Reaction and overreaction. Parents are a big part of this necessary phase of “transgression” and “norms testing.” Kids use Mom and Dad as guinea pigs to test their understanding of the norms. Are you shocked? Good! That’s exactly the effect the little ones were going for. Show your shock and continue to enforce reasonable rules without resorting to panic. It’s all a phase—really!
- Family fright time. If your little darlings are fascinating by fright-themed playthings, try a family game or activity with a monster theme. This is especially helpful for families with siblings of different ages. Ghouls and goblins seem a lot less scary from the safety of a familiar lap. If possible, just be in the same room with younger children as they play and offer reassurance when needed.
- Take cues from your kid. Always observe and monitor how a child is responding. Some toys may be too intense, even when a kid is well within the age range for a toy. Don’t be a slave to manufacturer’s suggestions. After all, you know your child best.
- Adult appeal. Understand that grown-ups are the ones actually buying the toys. Marketers and manufacturers often miss the mark and include features that appeal to adults but are inappropriate for kids. When something delightfully frightful catches your eye—stop, look and listen. Ask yourself, How does this look to my child?”
It’s a no-brainer. (Pardon the pun!) When it comes to scary creatures, common sense is king. Know yourself, know your child, and you’ll survive the zombie toy apocalypse just fine.