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Resist the Pressure to Micromanage Halloween

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Read Time: 3 minutes

What a phenomenal piece in today’s New York Times by Jessica Grose, the former parenting editor there. She is begging parents to “Stop Micromanaging Halloween,” a trend we’ve seen ever since parents started checking their kids’ candy for tampering back when *I* was a kid. (The number of kids poisoned by a stranger’s candy in all that time? Zero.)

Over the decades, the meddling has only gotten much more intense. There’s the new phenom of the “Switch Witch” — guess who gets to play that role? She lets the kids choose a few precious pieces of their loot then swaps out rest for copies of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” (Almost — “she” swaps them out for a toy so the kids feel loved, and so do their teeth and endocrine levels.)

But there’s also so much more:

It seems like every holiday — even the ones that are supposed to have a heavy component of unsupervised mischief — is dominated by increasingly baroque and expensive parent-led rituals. Because it’s not just the Switch Witch, it’s “Boo”-ing your friends and neighbors — creating gift bags that you leave on their doorsteps with instructions that they must “Boo” other people. I’m sure there are other trends that I don’t even know about yet because I aggressively curate my Instagram feed to be ignorant of them.


Grose quotes a Washington Post columnist who wondered: “When did Halloween turn into a week long extravaganza with elaborate homemade costumes, multiple parties and parades, all chaperoned by parents?”

When did most of childhood become adult-chaperoned?

Then Grose takes us exactly where this excess of assistance, intervention, and supervision lands us: At the feet of Let Grow’s Dr. Peter Gray and the recent Journal of Pediatrics article he lead-authored, outlining how a lack of independence is making kids anxious and depressed! Been happening for decades! Writes Grose:

 Sixty years ago, children were allowed to do much more on their own from a young age. They walked or biked to school in elementary school; they were allowed to babysit or have paper routes by 11 or 12. There was less homework and youth sports hadn’t quite morphed into today’s youth sports industrial complex, so kids had more unstructured time to be outside and make their own fun, away from adults.

[The Pediatrics’ authors] theorize that a lack of independent activities negatively affects a child’s internal locus of control. “Internal LOC refers to a person’s tendency to believe they have control over their life and can solve problems as they arise, in contrast to external LOC, which is a tendency to believe their experiences are ruled by circumstances beyond their control,” they explain. When children aren’t allowed to do things on their own, they may have a weaker internal LOC, and that is “highly predictive” of certain levels of anxiety and depression.

“There’s a logic here that I think makes perfect sense and I want people to understand it,” said Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the study’s lead author… Which is that you’re taking away the opportunity for kids to have control over what they’re doing, “Because you are always controlling them. They’re always in school or they’re in school-like activities or they’re at home and not allowed to go out and do things on their own.”

Solution, at least at Halloween? Be intentional in teaching your kids to look both ways before crossing the street. Cars are the biggest threat on Halloween, not strangers or razor blades.

Then, once they’re 7, 8 or 9, they can do that activity that is the most thrilling thing in their young lives: Be adults for one exciting night! They dress up and go to “work,” cold-calling on neighbors for candy. It’s the ONE NIGHT we let kids have a taste of independence and if we keep taking it away, the Switch Witch will swap out happiness for anxiety.

Boo! (Hoo.)


  1. CaryCary says:

    Am I the only person who ever comments? The screen shot from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” that opens this article is appropriate. In 1966, when that now-classic premiered, it was a completely realistic depiction of childrens’ Halloween activities that were taken for granted. We went out in pairs or larger groups, kids only, after dark, and wandered the neighborhoods for several blocks around our own homes, knocking on doors and shouting “Trick or treat!” I started doing this at age four, with a group of older (8 to 12 years) neighbor kids. When I was somewhat older (8 to 12 myself) there was sometimes a bit of mischief–nothing criminal or very dangerous, but to us kids Halloween night was a big adventure. We usually wandered home by around 10:00 at the latest, with sacks full of junk candy that we spent the next few days devouring (I still have all my teeth, somewhat worn but otherwise in good condition). No children were kidnapped. No children died. The adult-free, independent Halloweens of my childhood are among my best memories. It would be a great gift to today’s kids to restore that tradition. (grumpy old dude, again)

    • LauraLaura says:

      I think a critical thing that you said is “I started doing this at age four, with a group of older (8 to 12 years) neighbor kids.” My daughter is 4 this year and she doesn’t have a group of older kids to go around with – most of her friends are other kids close to her age, and their one sibling each is closer in age – so my husband is going to take her around.

      I wish there were older kids in the neighborhood that could take her under their wing, but the ones I do know barely have any freedoms themselves.

  2. HeresolongHeresolong says:

    Couldn’t agree more. And yet I find myself going to a friend’s Halloween party this Saturday, for adults and children, and putting together a costume. Looking back I don’t ever remember my parents having a Halloween costume or party. Not sure when it started. I guess just a chance to have a party?

    • LauraLaura says:

      I think adults and children having a Halloween party isn’t necessarily a bad thing – when I was a kid, my parents had friends who would host parties throughout the year and all of us kids went and did our own thing in the basement and outside. The critical piece is that we kids were able to do our own thing, rather than it feeling like there were 10 chaperones there.

  3. HeresolongHeresolong says:

    Oh, forgot to mention, we could eat as much candy as we wanted for three days, then it went into the cupboard over the fridge. We were allowed candy on Fridays the rest of the year. By the end of three days we were candied out anyway, and by the next Halloween the dregs left in the cupboard were stale and unappealing.

    • AngelaAngela says:

      I love this idea! A bit of excess, then some control, but not habit forming!

      Our kids really want a lily pad, which is shockingly expensive, so we bought the candy back from them to earn money for the lily pad. Not quite as bad as the switch witch, I hope. I still hate how much candy is given out at school and church and soccer practice…

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