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BY LENORE SKENAZY
“Trick or treat, trick or treat, give us something lethal to eat!”
That’s not the actual rhyme, but from all the warnings about Halloween you just might think it was. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics is still insisting that “a responsible adult should closely examine all treats.”
But why? How many decades of disproving this murderous myth do America’s doctors require before they lay it to rest? Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, first put a stake through the poison candy rumor all the way back in 1985, when he did a study of newspapers dating back to 1958, looking for “Child poisoned by Halloween candy” news stories.
He found none — because there were none. One time, a boy in Texas did die of a poisoned Pixie Stix, but cops quickly discovered that it was from his own dad who, $100,000 in debt, had just taken out a life insurance policy on him. And yet we still use this fear of neighbors-as-psychopaths as an excuse to curtail our kids’ Halloween fun.
We trot out plenty of other threadbare fears, too. Last week, Patch USA reminded its readers of a girl murdered in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, by a man later referred to as the Halloween Killer. That crime was in 1973 — 44 years ago. And yet, that single, sad story is the excuse Patch gives for publishing maps of the homes of men, women, and children on the sex offender registry.
That may sound like they’re doing a public service. But it’s actually like telling people never to go south of 14th Street, because once there was a terrorist attack there. When Johns Hopkins Professor Elizabeth Letourneau did a study of sex crimes on Halloween, looking for evidence of registered sex offenders pouncing on pint-sized pirates and princesses, she was shocked to find not only was there no bump in the numbers, the day was actually remarkably low in crimes against kids. In fact, she said, “We thought about calling it, ‘Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year.’ ”
So Patch publishing the addresses of registrants may sound responsible, but it is scaring families with one exceedingly rare tragedy, and reinforcing the false idea that anyone registered as a sex offender is an insatiable monster. In truth, the number of people on the registry who commit a new sex crime is far lower than most people realize. It’s about five out of 100. Your kids are more likely to end up on the registry than to be molested by someone on it.
And then there are the fears spread simply by the way Halloween is morphing from child holiday into supervision on steroids. Kids trooping door to door seems less and less normal as communities, churches, and schools sponsor chaperoned parties and “trunk-or-treats.” That’s when parents park their cars in a circle and open up the trunks, which are decorated and filled with candy. Nothing wrong with that new tradition, except that it is edging out the far older one of kids walking around their neighborhood, not just a parking lot, and doing it on their own, not under the watchful eyes of a gaggle of grown-ups.
Trunk-or-treating is a perfect example of modern day childhood. We have taken away all the independence of the most liberating holiday of the year and replaced it with something that grown-ups may feel is just as good — plenty of candy — even though so many thrilling elements are gone: the bravery kids get when they knock at the cob-webbed house, the confidence they get from being trusted to go out at night, the triumph they feel returning home with the fruits of the labor, and the memories they make the way most of us did, goofing around without a parent always watching.
That’s a lot to trade for a trunk of easily accessed candy.
And that’s not to mention all the lesser fears swirling around like bats in our collective belfry. Fears for our kids’ teeth, digestive systems, and future figures, trotted out by marketers trying to foist upon us everything from Halloween toothbrushes (a substitute for sugar) to probiotic treats (I kid you not), to low-cal substitutes and vegan candy corn.
As if Mary Janes weren’t bad enough!
(By the way, commercial candy corn isn’t vegan. You have to make the vegan stuff yourself, which sounds only slightly less dreary than trunk-or-treating.)
Holidays always evolve. Sleighs evolve into SUVS, taffy apples evolve into fun-size Snickers. But trick-or-treating did not just evolve into a riot of overprotection. That is a decision adults have made, pushed by the forces insisting our very safe kids are not safe enough to have the kind of fun and freedom we did.
Lenore Skenazy is founder of Free-Range Kids, president of Let Grow, and a contributor to Reason.com.