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

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 often even flashlights. And I, for one, 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, plus gluten- and corn syrup-free popcorn balls, of course.

The trend towards helicopter parenting, with its stereotypically vigilant moms and dads, shoulders much of the blame for these updates in modern Halloween celebrations. But those helicopter parents — known for forbidding their children to set foot outside unmonitored, uncontrolled, and without protective padding — are finally getting pushback in recent years. A 2018 study published in Developmental Psychology, for example, pointed to problematic long-term effects of helicopter parenting — ie, it renders children less self-sufficient). There’s a movement afoot of parents who are trying to reclaim free-range parenting as a viable (and, yes, safe) option, and for good reason.

No, parents: We don’t have to be with our kids every moment — not even every holiday moment. As a working mom, sure I’m heartsick whenever I miss one of my daughter’s new experiences. I think any increase in family togetherness is beneficial. But how much of the motivation to inject parental involvement into kids’ Halloween activities is family bonding, and how much is paranoia?

We know that the myths of poisoned Halloween candy or strangers wrapping up hallucinogens and handing them out to unsuspecting children are just that: myths. And while it’s already highly unlikely that a stranger will abduct your child (in fact, “stranger danger” is far less of a concern than “tricky people” your child already knows), there’s no rise in child abductions around Halloween. The real danger on Halloween? Statistics show it’s an increase in child pedestrian accidents. And that, while a legitimate concern, doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of most Halloween helicopter parents’ minds.

Pumpkin carving for Halloween
Image: Newman Studio/Shutterstock. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

Let’s face it: Halloween is a macabre time of year, and parents aren’t immune to getting freaked out. There are slasher marathons on cable, fake graveyards popping up around the neighborhood, and people dressed as the undead. I personally love Halloween, horror and all things dark, but I get the real fears, too — especially since having my daughter. It’s all a little scarier when you’re responsible for a small human whom you love.

Is it possible that on Halloween, perhaps more than other time of year, parents let their own fears and superstitions infect their children with unfounded anxieties? Is the prospect of hauntings or satanic rituals subconsciously forcing us to follow our children to every doorstep to “monitor their safety”?

If we urge our children not to be afraid of imaginary 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.

Halloween seems like a pretty good time to let kids build just that: confidence. To practice a little bit of freedom. When I think back, some of my favorite childhood Halloween memories involved knocking on the doors of houses with unfriendly “we have no candy” signs, or having a standoff 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 within a group of other kids.

I was never nearly lured into a van, flashed by a neighbor, or talked into being sacrificed by satan worshipers. The appeal of trick-or-treating without adults was mostly the independence — well, that and acting kind of like a little jerk. I think there’s value in giving kids the freedom to problem-solve and make decisions on their own, even if that decision involves making mistakes and a bit of rule-breaking. Halloween is about (a little) sanctioned mayhem after all, just for one night.

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, if you’re that afraid, don’t do it. I can’t be responsible for safety decisions other parents make about their own kids. As much as I would like to see free-range parents everywhere banding together and letting their kids loose in solidarity, the reality is that every parent and every kid is different, and no one can make those decisions for anyone else.

You know your kid best. If they’re of a reasonable age for independence, have good judgment, adhere to curfews, have other responsible kids to trick-or-treat with, and are extremely careful when crossing the street (even when on a sugar high), those items should factor into your decision — not scary myths, scary movies, or any other outside unrelated factors that are making you anxious. If you’re still not sure, perhaps consider letting your kid trick-or-treat your own block without you as a practice run. Then, you can join for the rest of the outing if you feel the need to.

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” entirely. There’s a finite window of time before our kids only want to hang with their friends and emulate YouTube stars or whatever it is they’re doing these days. While they still want to hang with us, let’s absolutely soak it up — let’s act embarrassing and overly involved, and let’s wear themed family costumes our own parents wouldn’t have been caught dead in.

But when our kids decide they’re ready to hit some neighborhood houses on their own, let’s let them do it — no matter what scary crap we just watched on cable.

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