Dear Lenore: Is it safe to let my kids trick-or-treat? Why do communities put so many Halloween rules in place?
Trick-or-treating is something kids did safely on their own for decades. But society is morphing this delightful childhood tradition into "dangerous encounters with strangers." Every town seems determined to come up with new Halloween rules and laws that seem crazier than the last. Yet in nearly any neighborhood, it's perfectly safe to let kids go out trick or treating on their own. Just give them a few common-sense guidelines to follow.
Restrictive Halloween Rules and Laws
In recent years, we've been watching the craziest Halloween rules and even laws enacted by communities and cities. There are some real doozies out there. Here's one example.
In Chesapeake, Virginia, the city code used to state that "Trick-or-Treat hours will be from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. on October 31 for children 12 and under." Take that, teenagers! Plus, the code actually said that anyone over the age of 12 who trick-or-treated could be put in jail. In 2019, the city amended these Halloween rules so that kids up to 14 years old can participate. Plus, it removed the jail time penalty. Now it's "just" a Class 4 misdemeanor. The city's website brags that this is "one of the least restrictive ordinances in all of Hampton Roads." For whatever that's worth.
The Rise of Trunk-or-Treat
Many communities require kids to be accompanied by an adult, or set designated trick-or-treat times during afternoon daylight hours. Some have eliminated neighborhood trick-or-treating and replaced it with "safer" activities like trunk-or-treat, where people gather in a big parking lot and give candy to kids out of the trunks of their cars. These are often sponsored or run by local police.
Why is it suddenly so dangerous to go house to house? If there are enough police to run a face-painting, prize-giving, candy fest, why not redeploy them as crossing guards for the night to prevent the only real danger, traffic accidents?
The kids are corralled into a "designated area," considered a safe space. This is implying that they are only safe when they can be watched over. That's the basic premise of house pets...and prisoners. And just in case that wasn't safe enough, there are guardians and police close by. This turns a night of fun and freedom into a night so incredibly treacherous that the children need two levels of protection.
Trunk-or-treat can be a fun way for a community celebrate Halloween. But why does it need to replace traditional nighttime trick-or-treating?
Halloween Safety Myth #1: Poisoned Candy
What about one of trick-or-treating's most enduring myths: candy that's been poisoned or tampered with? For years, parents have been sorting through their kids' haul, throwing away anything with a tiny tear or worn wrapper. Police flyers even advise throwing away apples (honestly, though, who is still giving kids apples?). How likely is it that someone has poised your kids' Halloween candy?
The fact is, there's almost no chance your kids' candy collection is unsafe. The very few stories on record involve a woman who gave out rat poison to older kids "as a joke," and a man who poisoned his own children's Pixie Stix after taking out life insurance policies on them. No one is trying to poison random kids with Halloween candy.
Halloween Safety Myth #2: Child Molesters
Police often recommend scouting out your kids' trick-or-treating route in advance and comparing it with the National Sex Offender Registry. Talk about a scare tactic. Studies show that kids are no more likely to be molested on or around Halloween than at any other time. Save yourself some time and just teach kids how to be safe around strangers of any kind. Those are Halloween rules that make sense.
Halloween Safety Truth: Traffic Is The Real Danger
There is one real danger to kids trick-or-treating on their own or with parents: traffic. Children are more than twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car on Halloween than any other day. That's a fact worth knowing. So teach your kids how to cross the street safely. Make sure their outfits incorporate lights or bright colors, so drivers can see them in the dark. These aren't Halloween rules; they're common-sense every day rules.
Taking Back Halloween For Kids
Halloween used to be a celebration of childhood independence. Kids went out on their own, in "grown-up" clothing, to get to know their neighbors, to get brave by facing the dark, to get goodies by being bold and ringing doorbells. Halloween rules and laws have turned this holiday into an orgy of adult supervision and anxiety. The time frame gets shorter as the regulations grow, all seemingly based on the idea that anyone above age 13 is a potential hooligan or potential victim, and any semblance of fun must be thrown out faster than a Snickers bar with a damaged wrapper.
The truth, the world is generally safer today than it was 30 years ago. So instead of throwing a protective safety net around kids, teach them how to be safe on their own. Then, we can return to a fun and slightly spooky night of Halloween trick-or-treating without the need to threaten kids with jail time, or worse.