Was it okay for me to tell a scary story at my grandson’s birthday party?

Several weeks ago we hosted my grandson’s eighth birthday part at the Lakehouse. Ben and four of his friends were in boy-Nirvana: treehouse, fishing, dogs, soccer, pizza, sleeping bags, looking at Venus and Jupiter through a telescope, etc.

The first evening I put a large blanket in the field, invited the boys and my son-in-law to lay on their backs and gaze at the stars. I asked, “There may be boys on another planet that are looking at our star right now. If they asked you ‘what is it like to live on Earth, what would be your answer?’ Invigorating conversation ensued. 

Then I announced that I had a scary story to tell. Excitement peaked. I made up a story about a two-headed coyote that had lived in the area for over 200 years. It had recently been sighted. As I told the story my voice became progressively quieter, and then I screamed. Everyone came off the blanket a few inches. Two of the boys said, “That’s not scary; tell us a really scary story.” Everyone was laughing, except for one boy, who started crying. Touchingly, the other boys offered him succor – “It’s just make believe…it’s ok, we’re all together…” His response was (through sobs), “That story will be stuck inside my head for the rest of my life.”

It took a maternal touch to defuse the moment (thanks, Lauren), and all was well by the time we went to bed (me in the doghouse).

Here’s what I learned.

Isn’t it interesting how individuals react differently to the same stimulus. Five boys heard the story; four loved it and wanted more and one was shaken. So before I speak, I need to evaluate what I’m about to say and consider how it will impact all those who hear. This is an aspect of emotional intelligence—sensing how my words and actions will affect the lives of others. For instance, humor is a tricky thing to negotiate: tell a joke to 100 people and 98 will think it’s clever and uplifting but two may be offended.

But our carefulness can be taken to an unnecessary extreme: if we’re overly cautious and too sensitive, our speech may become bland and boring and/or we just won’t say much. No matter what you say or do, someone will be bothered by it. There is a balance to achieve.

So, I ask you my readers, “Was it okay for me to tell a scary story at my grandson’s birthday party?”

26 Replies to “Was it okay for me to tell a scary story at my grandson’s birthday party?”

  1. Yes! Yes, again!
    The youngster who was frightened was soothed. Your plans, preparations, and your interest in engaging the boys WAS a gift.
    I am doubting that any of Ben’s guests have a granddaddy who would initiate such a memorable occasion. It was a special 8th!
    And YAY for having “maternal” assistance present.
    Pat Jasper

  2. Yes! Story telling is a life lesson and this one just happened to be a scary story. It was a good situation for the other boys to reach out to the one that got scared. At least they did not mock him, which I know you would have put a stop to.

    We can’t just shut down and stop telling stories / jokes / have tough conversations (politics anyone?) just because one person might be hurt. Yes, we need to be conscientious of those in the audience, but not to the extent we just shut down.

    1. Thanks, Scott, for sharing your thoughts. A lot went on the night of the two-headed coyote story; my fondest memory is of the other boys comforting the boy who was scared. Take care. Don

    1. Thanks, Steve, for responding to my post. That means a lot to me. I do hope it was a growing experience for the boy. Don

  3. Yes, it was ok. I doubt he will be emotionally traumatized for life. And it will be a good story of a birthday party to tell after he is an adult. I love reading about you and Ben. Keep-’em coming
    Thanks for this one.

  4. Hi Don,
    Truly love your blog and share pertinent articles with my young adult children. Yes, I do think it was ok to share your story, that is EXACTLY what is a mistake in our society (which I too am guilty with my kids), we are trying so hard not to offend or be tough with our kids or grandkids that they are NOT being prepared for life!
    Happy Thanksgiving,
    Eve Sullivan

    1. Eve, thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree that we mustn’t insulate our children from the inevitable, but train them how to respond in a healthy way. Thanks, and Happy Thanksgiving to you. Don

  5. I think it’s amazing. It also taught that young man that it’s ok to be scared and seek comfort which was given in an healthy matter from his mom since he returned to the boys. It’s teaching him to evaluate situations and self- regulate (for now with help from his mom) his emotions. He may be more sensitive than the other boys and having healthy experiences like this teaches him to not be ashamed of himself and to be able to navigate the world without turning into a snowflake.
    I say it was ok for the story.
    The way he coped and searched for comfort and the way it was given was even better!
    The story is not really what would have scarred him but the response he got to his emotional response.

    1. Manon, thanks for responding and adding to the conversation. You write like a psychologist; you have keen insight. Take care, Don.

  6. I think the answer is yes, it was ok to tell a scary story. The “outcome” of telling the story may not have been ideal. I say “ideal” because most of the group was energized and the one who was not, learned something. He learned that his emotion of fear has no basis in some situations. And because he was exposed to it, he may be emotionally armed in other situations that require emotional intelligence.

    1. Thanks, Kirk, for taking the time to respond. I do hope we all learned a good lesson. I have fond memories of our times together. Thanks for our friendship. Don

  7. The short answer is “no.”

    With a large “I wasn’t there” caveat may I humbly offer up that the young child probably didn’t cry because you somehow offended him intellectually. He cried simply because what you said — in that setting — scared him. Might be worth spending some time thinking about your motivation for telling that story in that setting — perhaps with the intent of scaring young children for your own personal amusement??? One of my sons is gifted with a very vivid imagination (including as a young child) and I had to learn by trial and error to be sensitive to that.

    Fortunately (for me) I am running out of space in this response to even begin to describe how many times that I have made choices as a father that brought tears in my own childrens’ eyes. 🙂 And I have not yet been blessed with grandchildren.

    I hope you might find the above useful. But it won’t be nearly as useful as your writing has been to help me think further about things in my life and the lives of others. God bless you Don. Keep writing and keep loving on those grandchildren!

    1. Lee, thanks for responding, and for kind words. That means a lot to me. I do need to improve my sensitivity to all environments and social settings and hopefully not say anything that would be hurtful or off-putting. Take care. Don

  8. I can’t answer your question without knowing how old these kids were. However, I can say that my kids and I have great memories about “scary” moments a long time ago. One of my favorites was when my son and I were on a road trip listening to Hank The Cowdog and The Vampire Cat by John Erickson. John reads the book, sings the songs, and does great voices – one of the few venues where I’d rather listen than read; he’s that good. Anyway, It was dark as we were rolling into Colorado Springs and the Vampire Cat was screeching threats to ‘claw the dog’s eyes out’, when my son says in a shaky voice “Dad, can we finish listening to this tomorrow during the day? It’s really spooky.” I’m laughing about it as I write; it’s such a great memory.
    A two headed coyote? That’s an image in my head that I’d laugh about for the rest of my life. You in the doghouse for it? That’s funny too! Made me laugh!

    1. Thanks, Daniel, for taking the time to write. I love the story about your son asking if the story could be finished during the day. You were/are a good father.

  9. This may be the greatest opportunity of the young man’s life to learn about himself and you provided it. Absolutely you mustn’t cater to the most limiting possibility in the circumstances presented, unless you’re diffusing an actual bomb. Yet sensitivity to the responses as teaching opportunities, especially in very young people, offers great discipleship moments.

    1. Thanks, Maggie, for your thoughtful response. I like your phrase “don’t cater to the most limiting possibility in the circumstances presented.” I wish I had said that 🙂

  10. I think it is wise to be sensitively aware before and during the story to “read the room.” But when in a large gathering or on a dark blanket, may not always be possible to see and sense where everyone is emotionally during a story or joke. In cases like yours, what happens immediately afterwards to validate the person scared (or offended) is most important and the best we can do.

  11. Thanks Don! Great conversation piece. I love the way you took the risk and delivered the age-appropriate story – and yes, there is risk. And when the one didn’t respond positively, you responded well with comfort and attention. Reminds me of emotional responding training I received a long time ago 🙂 A good food analogy might help. Just because one of your guests might be sensitive to pepper or other seasoning doesn’t mean you don’t season the dish. Without appropriate “spice” in life, we are left with bland and uninteresting. Along with proper care and concern, life needs its spice. I think that is what God intended.

    1. Russ, thanks for taking the time to respond. It’s so good to hear from you. I like your food analogy. I hope you and your family are well. Don

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