If a visitor from outer space were observing our town during the last few days of October, I’m sure it would be a head-scratching (or tentacle-scratching) experience. Parents go out and buy large bags of candy, much of which no one likes. Halloween night comes and those same parents give away that candy to strange children dressed in weird outfits while their own children maraud the neighborhood collecting the same kind of candy (that mostly nobody likes) from other parents whose children are collecting the candy from still other parents by threatening them with “tricks.” A great river of sweets circulates from house to house.
Huh? What’s it all about? Clearly it can’t be the candy. It would be easier, and probably cheaper, for each family just to buy their own kids a bag of candy that they really do like and hand it to them.
Halloween is a hold-over holiday from another time. Once a religious tradition, it evolved (or devolved) into a children’s event in many parts of the US. In the more innocent decades of the 50s and 60s and even the 70s, trick or treating was a harmless way to let kids do harmless mischief and play with the thrill of being out on the streets after bedtime, getting treats from strangers. Oh sure. There were always a few kids who would spoil it for the many by egging cars and soaping windows. But mostly it was good clean fun, with or without the soap.
Fast forward a decade or three and it’s not always so innocent or so much fun. Friends tell me of mobs of teens out terrorizing each other, shaking down the little kids, and demanding candy at the doors of those whose lights are on. Others tell me of carloads of kids being dropped off in their neighborhoods by parents who either think their own blocks are too dangerous or who want their kids to cash in on more free candy. Still others tell me of kids who can’t be bothered saying thank you when they collect their candy. They just want to be off to the next house to get more. It’s a sad comment on what the day has become and what kind of parenting is going on.
Sometimes serendipity brings unexpected gifts. Halloween in my friend Susan’s neighborhood is one of them. “I can’t remember anyone organizing it,” she says. “It just magically happened.” On her block, one adult person (whether spouse, partner, older sib, or friend) stays at each house, while another goes out with the kids. Many of the stay-at-homes get creative, dressing in some kind of costume and doling out candy with growls or witchy laughs while admiring the costumes of the kids. Meanwhile, the out-and-abouts tromp through the leaves, greeting each other and joining up with other groups. Adults hang back and chat while the kids go door to door. It is a yearly celebration of the coming of autumn, of neighborhood relationships, and of the pure fun of walking around the neighborhood in the dark, exchanging hellos and candy. Someday maybe all these kids will understand just how special, and important, the yearly celebration of neighborliness is. Maybe they will be wise enough to repeat it for their own kids.
Taking Charge and Making Halloween Safe
If a safe Halloween won’t happen naturally in your neighborhood, it’s time to take charge and make it so. Talk to the neighbors who also have children and any others who are kid-friendly. Agree that the kids will only trick or treat at designated houses. Organize groups of kids to be accompanied by an adult. If each house provides a little Halloween fun, the kids will slow down and the evening will last. It doesn’t take much. A witch’s hat and a large pot for the candy and you’re a witch, not just Johnny’s mother. A scary mask and a scary voice and you’re a monster, not just Sandy’s father. Such antics make the evening more kid-focused and less candy-obsessed. By the way: A thank you at each stop should be expected and asked for if it doesn’t come naturally.
No neighbors to play with? Plan a party instead of trick or treating as a Halloween celebration, either in your own home or at a local community space. Enlist parents of other kids and each take charge of creating one activity to spread out the work and expense. Instead of trick or treating outside, kids can go around to various areas in the room to do a game and get a treat. Put doughnuts on a string in one doorway, apples on a string in another. Have a mask making contest. How about “pin the wart on the goblin’s nose” as a variant of pin the tail on the donkey?
One mother I know set up trick or treating with the neighbors in her apartment building. Each family that agreed to participate put a cutout of a pumpkin on the door. The kids in the building knew they shouldn’t bother the people who weren’t pumpkined. Many of those who did welcome the kids got into the spirit of the thing, spooking the kids with costumes of their own and acting appropriately impressed by miniature ghosts and goblins.
Kids too old to go Trick or Treating? Fairly or not, teenaged boys dressed up in gruesome costumes and traveling in groups frighten small children and older adults. (Teen girls dressed as princesses or movie stars can get away with it if they’re polite. Life isn’t fair.) Some teens get into trouble, masks and costumes adding daring and taking away good sense. Sometimes adults mistakenly accuse teens of trouble just because they are a fearsome sight when they travel in gangs. You are the parent. If your child is too old, keep him or her home or clearly designate only friends’ homes to go to.
More to the point, it’s part of the transition into adulthood to let go of a child’s celebration and become one of the big people who make the party. Teens can be encouraged to be the goblin handing out the candy or can help with children’s events. A teen costume party can give teens an appropriate way to celebrate the holiday that keeps them off the streets and out of trouble.
Managing the Halloween Loot
Concerned about your kids eating all that candy? There are a number of philosophies about this one. There are parents who just let the kids eat themselves sick, deciding that one day a year of sugar overload isn’t going to ruin dinner for life. Others dole out the kids’ candy a couple of pieces a day. Still others let the kids decide with the result that some of the kids in the family pig out and others hoard it until Easter.
Some families make Halloween into a lesson in sharing. All the kids’ candy is put into a communal bowl that everyone shares for “dessert” for the next week or two. Still others let their kids choose some for themselves, and drop off the rest at the local food pantry so that kids who aren’t so lucky can have some treats (and their own kids won’t be visiting the dentist). If you are clear about what you expect and mean it, the kids will usually go along.
Ensuring Fun with Safety
Halloween is an opportunity to show our children how to be part of a community and how to have fun that is based on camaraderie and good will. Done well, Halloween lets children play with fear without having to be really afraid. With adult guidance and participation, Halloween trick or treating can still be an affirmation of sharing instead of an exercise in greed. With some planning, kids today can have a taste of the sweet celebration of fall that many of us remember from our own childhood.