I Believe in Letting Kids Roam Free on Halloween — Why Don't You?

Elyse O'Dwyer

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Halloween — every year, but perhaps particularly this year, what with the petitions to move the holiday from October 31 — seems to inevitably make parents nostalgic. We recount Halloween misadventures of our youths, back when we didn’t adhere to a curfew or let the weather slow us down. We’d run wild at all hours, equipped (handily) with vision-inhibiting masks, toy weapons — and zero reflective tape, jackets or flashlights. Or so parents would have you believe. And I think it’s high time we brought this free-range form of parenting back — at least (or especially) for Halloween night.

Halloween’s “destruction” is often attributed to community “trunk or treat” celebrations that are put in place to avoid reckless and potentially unsafe trick-or-treating — by localizing the whole shebang in one parking lot. Parents, having presumably only recently outgrown their own Halloween bar-crawls, insert themselves into these family-fun versions of Halloween, complete with bobbing for organic apples, and gluten/corn syrup free popcorn balls.

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Helicopter parenting, with its stereotypically vigilant parents, shoulders much of the blame for updates in modern Halloween celebrations. Known for forbidding their children to step foot outside unmonitored, uncontrolled, and without protective padding, the parenting style has experienced some pushback in recent years, with studies pointing to problematic long-term effects, rendering children less self-sufficient. There’s a movement of parents trying to reclaim free-range parenting as a viable and safe option.

As a working mom, I’m heartsick whenever I miss one of my daughter’s new experiences. I think any increase in family togetherness is beneficial, but while public outcry has perhaps been outsized, if the motivation to inject parental involvement in kids’ activities is more safety than family fun, that may be worth some introspection. We know that any reported incidents of strangers maniacally jabbing razorblades into candy apples or wrapping up hallucinogens and handing them out to unsuspecting children are as phony as tales of “Bloody Mary.” And while it’s already highly unlikely a stranger will abduct your child, there’s no correlation between Halloween and a rise in child abductions. Statistics show the real danger on Halloween is an increase in child pedestrian accidents. And that is an absolutely legitimate concern, but it doesn’t usually seem to be at the forefront of most worried parent’s minds.

Halloween is a macabre time of year. There are slasher marathons on cable, fake graveyards littering neighborhoods, people dressed as the undead. I personally love Halloween, horror and all things dark, but since having my daughter, it’s all a little scarier and harder to disassociate. There are stakes unlike ever before.

Is it possible that on Halloween more than other times of the year, parents are letting their own fears and superstitions infect their children with unfounded anxieties? Is the prospect of death, murder and satanic rituals subconsciously forcing us to follow our children down the block to monitor their safety?

If we admonish our children for fearing monsters under the bed, what kind of example are we setting by making fear-based choices after watching a few minutes of Michael Myers stalking teenagers? I wonder if our over-abundance of caution as parents will start to rub off on our children and teach them to become risk-averse. They may be missing out on the autonomy afforded through independent play, which can help build invaluable life skills and confidence in children.

Halloween seems like a good place to practice some freedom. When I think back, some of my favorite memories trick or treating involved knocking on the doors of houses with unfriendly “we have no candy” signs, or having a feud with a group of older kids, or getting scared by a man disguised as a scarecrow dummy. For all these memories, I was old enough to contextualize, and I was safely with a group of kids.

I was never nearly lured into a van, flashed by a neighbor, or talked into being sacrificed by satan worshipers. The appeal was mostly the independence, and acting like kind of a little jerk. I think there’s value in not having an adult around to step in, to give kids the freedom to problem solve and make decisions on their own, even if that decision involves making mistakes and some light rule-breaking. Halloween is about (a little) sanctioned mayhem after all.

So how do we quiet the irrational fears and send our kids out without low jacking them and dressing them up as a Hummel packed in bubble wrap? Honestly, I can’t be responsible for safety decisions for someone else’s kids. As much as I would like to see free-range parents banding together and letting their kids loose in solidarity, every parent and every kid is different, and no one can make those decisions for anyone else.

You know your kid better than anyone else does. If he/she is of a reasonable age for independence, avoids strangers, adheres to curfews, has responsible kids to trick or treat with, and is EXTREMELY careful when crossing the street, even when on a sugar high, those items should factor into your decision, not outside unrelated factors making you anxious. If you’re not sure perhaps consider letting your kid go down your own block as a practice run (assuming there are no busy streets) and join for the rest of the outing. Because I think what parenting comes down to is balance and trust, if your kid has demonstrated enough self-sufficiency, perhaps some freedom has been earned.

So no, I don’t think we should do away with trunk or treat celebrations. There’s a finite window of time before our kids only want to hang with their friends or youtube stars or whatever it is they’re doing these days. While they want to be with us, let’s soak it up, let’s act embarrassing and overly involved, and wear themed family costumes our own parents wouldn’t have been caught dead in. But when they’re ready to hit some neighborhood houses on their own, consider letting them do it, no matter what you just watched on cable.

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