Vintage Woody Allen on Stranger Danger

Hey Folks — Just a clip you might enjoy. (Or not.) — L.

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.

You Mean Not Every Candy-Giver is a Predator?

Hi Readers! The folks in this Chicago Sun-Times story are SO old, they tried to give candy to their grandchild’s schoolmates. How clueless! Don’t they know that any adult who is nice to someone else’s kids is probably grooming them for an illicit relationship…or worse? — L

Outrage of the Week: Grammar School Cancels Val Day for “Good of the Students”

Hi Readers — Our darling children, who, we’re told, can’t handle recess in the cold (see this), or waiting outside the high school to be picked up (see this), or babysitting, even at age 14 (see this), and who can’t possibly handle sleepovers (see this) or bugs ( see this) or bible stories (see this), are now being told they can’t handle Valentine’s Day, either.

A Maryland grammar school sent a letter to parents explaining its philosophy, which was reported in the local Frederick News Post:

Romance between students has no place in the elementary school classroom, [Principal Stephanie] Brown said, and the obsession of boy-girl relationships on Valentine’s Day was inappropriate for the school setting.

Another issue caused by the holiday was the exchange of cards, some of which had candies or other treats attached. Brown said she and her staff didn’t want to take the chance of causing problems for students with  food allergies.

So now kids can’t handle friendship, love or disappointment — in other words, human relationships — and the kids with allergies can’t handle not eating the treat handed to them, and of course the school can’t handle a darn thing ever happening to the kids at all. And there you have it: A nice little Valentine to abject paralysis.  — Lenore

Danger! Life ahead!

Weapons of (Christ)mas Destruction

Hi Readers! So many folks sent in this story today, I present it to you in all its insanity, even though it struck me as a little too bizarre and garbled to be 100% accurate. For instance, the crazy accusations were reported to the press only by one of the accused. Ho ho hmm.

Still, Christmas is a time for stories so — enjoy. But first, keep your children safe! Lock up the candy canes!   L.

Halloween Follow-Up — by YOU

Hi Readers! I’ve been behind in my emails and just found this cool idea. Comes from a gal named Catherine. Let’s do it!

Dear Free-Range Kids: How about a post-Halloween column where you challenge your readers to scan their local news and post ANY violent incidents that happened at Halloween?

I just scanned my local news and there was nothing (not surprisingly). It would be interesting to see if your readers can find even ONE.

As a journalist, if I was working for one of the big stations or papers that’s the story I’d be running today:  “Stats show no trick-or-treat tragedies.”

So, readers: Pile on! Anything truly SCARY that happened in your neck of the woods? Or just a lot of candy, costumes and kids? — L.