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.

Amazing Halloween Horror Story!

Hi Readers — Read it and creep:  This fantastic article from The American Spectator is about how Manchester, New Hampshire, imposed a law, on the books for decades, making Halloween officially the Sunday afternoon BEFORE Oct. 31. The law was, of course, in reaction to all the usual Halloween fears — razors, poison, torture — that over the years were discredited. And yet the restriction lived on.

Why was that such a crime? As author Andrew Cline so perfectly puts it:

Halloween is more than a massive candy-grab. Prompting kids try on grown-up personas and slip into the darkness to negotiate with total strangers, all under the watchful eyes of multitudes of parents, it involves the entire community in giving children their first chance to overcome some of the human race’s innate fears — darkness, strangers, and parental separation.

In short, Halloween is an important social ritual.

In fact, it is practice for the kind of society we want to create: One where everyone is pulling together, helping the kids grow independent, brave and optimistic. It was thwarted for 38 long years. And then —

This year, Police Chief David Mara did something completely unexpected. He announced, out of the blue, that the city’s trick-or-treating hours would be on Halloween afternoon. After some prodding from new mayor Ted Gatsas, Mara later switched the hours. They will be on Halloween night.

So this Sunday, for the first time in nearly four decades, the children of Manchester will haunt the streets of Manchester under the cold, dark sky on October 31. I suspect that a lot of their parents, who never knew the thrill, will find excuses to wear masks themselves that night. And behind them, they’ll be smiling.

Us, too! — L.

Ghosts, Goblins & Predators

Hi Readers! I read this piece and it blew me away. It’s by David Hess, a minister outside of Rochester, New York. Kudos to him — and a thanks, too, for letting me reprint the whole thing!

THE NEW URBAN MYTH: THE DANGER OF REGISTERED SEX OFFENDERS AT HALLOWEEN by David Hess

It’s almost time for the annual Halloween sex offender hysteria. This seemingly has replaced the urban myths about poison candy and razor blades in apples. I was interested to find that there has actually been a recent empirical study of the issue. An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Halloween sex-offender monitoring questioned,” describes it:

…Elizabeth Letourneau, a researcher with the Medical University of South Carolina’s Family Services Research Center in Charleston, S.C., said, “There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation.”

Paul Stern, a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, Wash., agrees. “People want to protect kids; they want to do the right thing and they make decisions based on what at first glance may make some sense. Sex offenders, costumes, kids — what a bad combination,” he said. “Unfortunately, those kinds of policies are not always based on any analysis or scientific evidence,” said Stern, who started prosecuting sex offenders who victimized children in 1985. 

Stern, Letourneau and two others published a paper last year for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers called: “How Safe Are Trick-or-Treaters? An Analysis of Child Sex Crime Rates on Halloween.”

The study looked at more than 67,000 sex crimes in 30 states against children 12 and younger from 1997 — before many Halloween sex-offender programs began — through 2005, well after many were under way. “These findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law-enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist,” the study concluded.

Letourneau said, “There’s just no increase in sex offense on that day, and in all likelihood that’s because kids are out in groups or they’re out with their parents and they’re moving around, they’re not isolated and otherwise at risk.” She said a better use of police on Halloween night would be to help protect children from traffic. “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,” she said.The entire study is available for purchase. An authors’ summary is available for free.

Interestingly, the study found that sex crimes increased substantially during summer months and that the summer would be a more appropriate time for increased vigilance. More from the study:
It might be argued that Halloween sex offender policies are worthwhile even if they prevent only a single child from being victimized. However, this line of reasoning fails to consider the cost side of the cost–benefit equation. The wide net cast by Halloween laws places some degree of burden on law enforcement officers whose time would otherwise be allocated to addressing more probable dangerous events. For example, a particularly salient threat to children on Halloween comes from motor vehicle accidents. Children aged 5 to 14 years are four times more likely to be killed in a pedestrian–motor vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year (Centers for Disease Control, 1997). Regarding criminal activity on Halloween, alcohol-related offenses and vandalism are particularly common (Siverts, 2002). Although we do not know the precise amount of law enforcement resources consumed by Halloween sex offender policies, it will be important for policy makers to estimate and consider allocation of resources in light of the actual increased risks that exist in other areas, such as pedestrian–vehicle fatalities. Our findings indicated that sex crimes against children by nonfamily members account for 2 out of every 1,000 Halloween crimes, calling into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources away from more prevalent public safety concerns.
Literally thousands of articles have been published in recent years about the danger presented by registered sex offenders at Halloween. Absent from all of them has been any mention of any specific incident in which a registered sex offender has attacked a Trick-or-Treater—not one, ever! If you know of any such incident, please e-mail me or post a comment below. I bet you can’t find one. This is a new urban myth. We always need some sort of monster on Halloween. It’s the nature of the holiday.

Outrage of the Week: Girl Gets Week Detention for A Piece of Candy!

Dear Readers — If you ever wondered, “Gee, what would be a really good example of over-reaction?” Or, “Hmm. I wonder just HOW stupid those Zero Tolerance laws are allowing administrators to be?” Or, if you are in third grade, “What’s the easiest way for me to get out of school for a week?” Here is the story for you:

A third grade girl, eating her lunch in the cafeteria, was given a Jolly Rancher (yum!) by her friend. She didn’t even get to pop it in her mouth (choking hazard!) before she got BUSTED for breaking a rule: NO CANDY IN THE SCHOOL.

Now she’s got a week of detention. In this school, it’s not just the candies that suck. — Lenore

THIS JUST IN! TEXAS DEPT. OF AGRICULTURE SENDS SCHOOL A LETTER TELLING THEM, “ONE STUPID PIECE OF CANDY IS NOT WHAT WE MEANT BY OUR HEALTHY EATING GUIDELINES. DUH!” (WELL, ALL WORDS MINE. BUT YOU GET THE IDEA.)