Halloween: The Day We Test-Market New Parental Fears

Hi Readers! Here’s my Wall Street Journal column from last year, slightly edited, about today’s holiday. Boo! — L

STRANGER-DANGER AND THE DECLINE OF HALLOWEEN, by Me!

Halloween is the day when America market-tests parental paranoia. If a new fear flies on Halloween, it’s probably going to catch on the rest of the year, too.

Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

Anyway, you’d think that word would get out: Poisoned candy? Not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won’t be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection.

As if being full has ever stopped any kid from eating free candy!

So stranger danger is still going strong, and it’s even spread beyond Halloween to the rest of the year. Now parents consider their neighbors potential killers all year round. That’s why they don’t let their kids play on the lawn, or wait alone for the school bus: “You never know!” The psycho-next-door fear went viral.

MINTING FEARS AND PATRONIZING PARENTS

Then along came new fears. Parents are warned annually not to let their children wear costumes that are too tight –those could seriously restrict breathing! But not too loose either — kids could trip! Fall! Die!

Treating parents like idiots who couldn’t possibly notice that their kid is turning blue or falling on his face might seem like a losing proposition, but it caught on too.

Halloween taught marketers that parents are willing to be warned about anything, no matter how preposterous, and then they’re willing to be sold whatever solutions the market can come up with: Face paint so no mask will obscure a child’s vision. Purell, so no child touches a germ. And the biggest boondoggle of all, the adult-supervised party, so no child encounters anything exciting. Er, “dangerous.”

Think of how Halloween used to be the one day of the year when gaggles of kids took to the streets by themselves — at night even. Big fun! Low cost! But once the party moved inside (to keep kids safe from the nonexistent poisoners), in came all the nonsense. The battery-operated caskets. The hired witch. The plastic everything else. Halloween went from hobo holiday to $6 billion extravaganza, even as it blazed the way for adult-supervised everything else.  Once Halloween got outsourced to adults, no kids-only activity was safe. Goodbye sandlot, hello batting coach!

MOLESTER’S FAVORITE HOLIDAY?

And now comes the latest Halloween terror: Across the country, cities and states are passing waves of laws preventing registered sex offenders from leaving their homes — or sometimes even turning on their lights — on Halloween.

The reason? Same old same old — safety. As a panel of “experts” on the “Today” show warned viewers recently: Don’t let your children trick-or-treat without you “any earlier than [age] 13, because people put on masks, they put on disguises, and there are still people who do bad things.”

Perhaps there are. But Elizabeth Letourneau, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, studied crime statistics from 30 states and found, “There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation.”

In fact, she says, “We almost called this paper, ‘Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year,’ because it was just so incredibly rare to see anything happen on that day.”

Why is it so safe? Because despite our mounting fears and apoplectic media, it is still the day that many of us, of all ages, go outside. We knock on doors. We meet each other. And all that giving and taking and trick-or-treating is building the very thing that keeps us safe: community.

We can kill off Halloween, or we can accept that it isn’t dangerous and give it back to the kids. Then maybe we can start giving them back the rest of their childhoods, too. — L.S.

Occupy Halloween! Hand Out HOMEMADE Treats This Year!

Hi Readers — It occurs to me that maybe the best way to fight Halloween paranoia is with cookies.

Start with the fact that there has NEVER been a case of children poisoned by a stranger’s candy on Halloween. That’s according to University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best, who has studied the urban myth since 1985. Nonetheless, the advice we ALWAYS hear is to “check your child’s candy for tampering,” and treat homemade goodies like radioactive waste. All of which is based on the belief that we are quite likely surrounded by psychopathic child killers  (who hold it in till Oct. 31st).

But that idea isn’t just wrong,  it’s corrosive. Start thinking of your nice neighbors as potential killers ONE day a year and how are you supposed to trust them the REST of the year? It begins to seem just plain prudent to treat everyone as evil, especially where our kids are concerned.

Result? A society where we don’t let our kids roam the neighborhood, interact with adults or do much of anything on their own. It just seems “too dangerous.” All adults are creeps and killers until proven otherwise.

So this year: Let’s prove otherwise.

Let’s be like “The Fudge Lady” my friend Kelley remembers from her childhood Halloweens. Along with her fabulous fudge wrapped in Saran Wrap, the lady included her phone number. Anyone worried could call  her, thus taking the terror out of the treat.

Do the same and anyone who is worried can call us. We can chat with them, explaining that we want  to spread community (and cookies). And we can remind them that even though it seems strange to get a homemade treat, we are part of the the 100% of people who have never poisoned a child on Halloween. — L.

By the way: Witches aren't a real threat, either.

Making Up Halloween Fears

Hi Readers! Sometimes I think that in our uber-safe society, poor scribes are locked in a room and told they can’t come out until they dream up some new worry — no matter how far-fetched — to caution folks about. (My current fave is the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s apple bobbing cautions, below.) That’s why I love this column from Spiked-Online, a great, British site filled with all sorts of surprising info and opinions. It’s by Nathalie Rothschild, a freelance writer based in New York. Visit her personal website here, and find her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

THE HORRORS OF HALLOWEEN ADVICE by Nathalie Rothschild

Americans are really into Halloween….but some are taking the mischievous tradition of scaring the bejesus out of one another a tad too seriously.

ABC News warns that ‘while this is a time for little ones to have fun, parents shouldn’t let the kids’ enthusiasm drown out common sense. There are many hazards associated with Halloween.’ Face paint can trigger allergies, costumes can get caught in car doors or catch fire, masks can slip over the eyes, young children can choke on treats, cut their fingers off while carving pumpkins or be kidnapped by strangers.

Scary, indeed.

Halloween is apparently a highlight not just for candy-crazy, fun-loving kids, but also for every health-and-safety-obsessed organisation in the nation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise parents to ensure their children go trick-or-treating in groups or with a trusted adult, that they carry flashlights and that they walk, not run, between houses. Adults should limit the amount of treats kids eat and check them for choking hazards before the kids start gorging them. Kids should only be allowed factory-wrapped candies and should avoid eating homemade treats made by strangers. Their costumes should be flame-resistant and, to be on the even safer side, kids should not walk near lit candles.

The National Fire Protection Association says each house should have two clearly marked exits in case of an emergency. Battery-powered or electric candles are preferable, but if you do insist on lighting candles, they should be kept at least one foot away from decorations.

The American Academy of Pediatrics believes small children should never carve pumpkins. ‘Children can draw a face with markers. Then parents can do the cutting.’ Trick-or-treaters should stay on well-lit streets and always use the sidewalk. If no sidewalk is available, they should ‘walk at the far edge of the roadway facing traffic’.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology warns of the hidden dangers of buying decorative contact lenses without a prescription. There is apparently no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ contact lens. ‘Lenses that are not properly fitted may scratch the eye or cause blood vessels to grow into the cornea.’

he US Food and Drug Administration says ‘partygoers and partythrowers’ should avoid juice that hasn’t been pasteurised or otherwise processed. Before bobbing apples, a traditional Halloween game, thoroughly rinse the apples under cool, running water to reduce the amount of bacteria that might be on them. ‘As an added precaution, use a produce brush to remove surface dirt.’

The American Red Cross has published 13 (nearly) rhyming tips for a safe Halloween. For example, ‘If you visit a house where a stranger resides, accept treats at the door and, please, don’t go inside.’

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission offers this helpful image as guidance for proper costume wear:

The Halloween safety tips lists go on, but you probably get the drift.

Why are these organisations so scared of Halloween? Or, rather, why are they so scared of letting parents use their common sense, of allowing people just to let loose and to have some respite from the worries, rule-making and diet-watching that are already part of their and their children’s everyday life? Whenever the public sees an opportunity to relax and have fun, health-and-safety obsessives see an opportunity to scare them back into submission. It’s not necessarily sinister, though, it’s just their creepy, intuitive reaction to stop people from experiencing fun overload.

Sure, all these dangers are a possibility – decorations can catch fire, apples could be covered in bacteria and masks may temporarily obscure kids’ vision. But pointing out the obvious, over and over, and exaggerating the risks behind these things won’t make people feel safer. It just helps turn what is a harmless holiday into a nightmarish, control-freakish night of health-and-safety horror. – N.R.

Travel (with Kids) Advisory

Hi Readers! I am on board with this (even though I am guilty of some of the “don’ts” myself!). The list-maker, Darreby Ambler, is a writer and mother of 3 from Bath, Maine. – L. 

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Dear Free-Range Kids: Thought you might like  this old list I found in a drawer yesterday.  When I read the first sentence, I thought immediately of Free-Range! These were the travel rules we used with our kids when they were smaller.  They are now 15, 19, and 21, and travel independently and joyfully around the world. (You can tell from the rules that it wasn’t always this way!  Hang in there, parents!)  — Darreby, in Maine
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Ambler Family Travel Rules and Responsibilities
  1. It’s good to talk to strangers.  The outside world is full of them.  The place you don’t have to deal with them is at home, which is where people who can’t cope with strangers will stay next time.
  2. Each traveler is responsible for finding things to be excited about, and sharing that enthusiasm.
  3. If the enthusiasm of others embarrasses you, pretend otherwise.  Being cool is dull, except in a sports car.
  4. Unusual foods are part of the point.
  5. Staying home is usually more comfortable than traveling, but traveling is more interesting.  Prioritize well.
  6. Travel disruptions are normal and a good way to show your readiness for more challenging adventures.
  7. Remember that your dislikes do not make interesting conversation.
  8. Wash your hands.  You have no immunity to foreign germs.  Throwing up is not interesting.
  9. You have travel in your future that you can not even imagine.  Adhering to these guidelines makes you eligible for such travel.

    Kids: If you travel nicely, you get to see things like THIS. (From one of my favorite countries: Turkey!)

Trick or Treat or Track Your Kid?

Hi Readers! Trick or treat or track? Those are the three Halloween options this year, according to this piece in the Orlando Sentinel, thanks to an app that allows parents to track their kids as they go trick or treating (or as they go anywhere,  any day. It’s not like the app only works on Oct. 31.)

According to Trick or Tracker’s website, the app “enables responsible parents to know the exact whereabouts of their trick-or-treating kids…”

So I guess it’s only IRRESPONSIBLE parents who allow their kids to go around the neighborhood without the equivalent of an electronic parole bracelet, eh? Now it’s nuts to trust our kids and our communities?

The company presents the app as a lifesaver…for parents who would otherwise trail their kids in a car, and thus end up “risking the lives of others that may stray into their paths, as they are distracted by the task of diligently watching their children from the car window.”

The idea that maybe kids can trick or treat on their own without their parents diligently watching in person or on a screen must seem hopelessly outdated to some. And yet, I vote for it. Why?

Because a lot of kids today rarely walk around their neighborhood at all. Only about one in ten walks to school.  Halloween night is the perfect time to break the ice, since a whole lot of kids are out. And, as I reported last year, professors who pored over sex crime stats found Halloween to be one of the safest days of the year. It’s also a night time holiday — at least when kids get a little older — and a kid who goes out without a parent at night is a kid who walks a little taller the next day.

Yes, walk your young kids around the neighborhood (or have an older kid do it). But when they get to the age that you went trick or treating without your parents, let your kids have that same empowering, en-candying experience. Tricks? Yes. Treats? Yes. Tracking? Boo. –L.

New Outrage! Kids in Cafeteria Must Ask Adults to Get Them Utensils

Readers, readers — I can’t stand how stupid our culture is some times! Like…right now! At this school! This story came in as a comment to the previous post. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: We just recently had a similar situation at my kids’ elementary school.  Last week, a first grader fell and hit his head in the cafeteria. The extent of the injury in not clear, but all reports are that the injury may have included some blood, but no serious injury requiring serious medical intervention.  The kid basically fell off his stool backwards and bumped his head.

So this week, a whole new array of rules in the cafeteria have been established, including that kids who need a fork, spoon, straw, etc. are now not permitted to get up and get one, but instead they are to raise their hand and ask the lunchroom monitors to get it for them. Kids are also no longer permitted to use the restroom during lunchtime.

I am sorry that a child bumped his head, but I do not see the sense in preventing kids from taking care of their own needs helps this.  There is not always an institutional solution to every little problem.  The kid fell not because someone got up and got a straw.  The kid fell because he is a little kid who sat a little goofy on his stool and lost his balance.

This is a perfect example of over-correcting for an unfortunate accident and in the meantime, creating worse problems for kids.  I think 4th graders should not expect an adult to take care of all their needs.  Talk about encouraging helplessness and entitlement!  Now the school would prefer my kid miss classtime to use the toilet instead of lunchtime? — A Reader

Outrage of the Week: School Cordons Off 3-Foot Hill

Hi Readers — Just got this note from David Robert Hogg, who blogs about traveling the world with kids at MyLittleNomads.com. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill!  — L
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Dear Free- Range Kids: I live in Seattle. Home to hikers, snowboarders, world travelers. It seemed like everyone I know was giving their kids the freedom to explore pretty much how we did as kids. OK, maybe not quite, but close enough not to land us on the Outrage of the Week.
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Then I got our weekly email from my boys’ school. They are taping off a part of the playground because some kids had fallen, slipped, or tripped on it. Wrote the principal:
Dear Parents: After a few injuries caused by large groups of students running down the slope to line up after recess, I asked our custodial engineer to temporarily tape the area to keep students from running down the slope.
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 have been communicating with our district gardeners and machinists to discuss a better solution such as landscaping the sloped area to prevent students from unsafely running down into it … I am also meeting with the Playground Committee this week and will seek their input on the improvements for safety reasons.

This is a "dangerous" hill?!

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Dear Principal (I wrote back): I was very disappointed to see the yellow tape around the dirt slope on the playground and even more disappointed to read your reasoning for it. 
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I’m a firm believer in the value of play – real play. There are risks, of course, that are serious enough to require intervention. A dirt hill with a 3 foot slope is not one of them. 
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In the simplest terms, what happens when a child falls while running down this slope? They learn they need to be careful when running down the slope! Remove the challenge and the consequences and you remove the opportunity to learn. Let me ask two questions:
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Are we making our kids any safer?
Almost certainly not. While potentially anything could happen with any fall, the majority of upsets are likely minor scrapes and bruises – if that. But more important, there’s evidence that removing small risks from a playground only serves to encourage greater risk taking – and prevents no injuries in the aggregate.
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Are we making kids any smarter?
The message we’re sending when we try to protect our children from trivial dangers like this is that we don’t trust them, their intelligence, their ability to learn. To be safe in the real world requires the ability to tell serious risk from manageable risk. Teachers talk in the classroom of getting kids to think independently – and then the children walk outside to see tape marking off a slope that a 2 year old could safely run down.
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Kids are better off  when they learn to navigate the real world than when they are protected from every possible risk. A playground that more closely resembles the real world makes for safer, stronger, and smarter children in the long run.
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It’s difficult to write seriously about such a trivial matter but I fear if I don’t speak up now that this policy of a zero-risk schoolyard will only grow stronger and our kids will pay a steep price. Steeper, even, than a 3-foot hill. — David Hogg