UPDATE: Um…Can a Town Actually “Not Sanction” Halloween?

Hi Folks — Okay, this is a day late, but too shocking to ignore. Go to this page of local listings of Halloween activities and check out what it says under “Frederick,” a Maryland suburb just north of D.C. Aw, heck, here —  I’ll excerpt it for you:

The City of Frederick does not sanction Halloween due to safety reasons. Times and restrictions should be determined by street blocks.

Yup, the town is officially sticking its fingers in its ears and going, “LA LA LA LA LA!” at the mere mention of trick or treating. It’s just too horrifying for the town elders to contemplate, I guess. Better the kids should miss the holiday than have those folks shuddering all day.

Yesterday I was interviewed on a radio show ( KIRO in Seattle) and the host, John Curley, asked me to predict what Halloween will look like in 10 years. I said something like, “There will be no costumes, because if they’re too tight they can choke a kid, but too loose they could trip, and if they’re too scary, some kids can’t handle it. And there won’t be props,  because those could trip or hurt a kid, and naturally no trick or treating, because that’s just asking for trouble, and no candy would be given out anyway, because of the obesity epidemic. And at the community center parties they won’t have any games, because those are covered with germs and also, sometimes a kid may lose, and that’s bad for their self-esteem, and while the adults COULD hand out fully-wrapped, X-rayed treats, kids might be allergic,  so everyone will just give out erasers — provided those are large enough not to present a choking hazard.”

And I present to you the town of Frederick as the cutting edge of what we are up against. THAT is scary. — L.

UPDATE: In the comments below, some of you were wishing we could come up with a cute catchphrase for Halloween. How about this, for would-be worrywarts and naysayers: LET’S KEEP THE “ALLOW” IN HALLOWEEN! — 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.

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.

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.

Passing the Popsicle Test

Hi Readers — How I love this post by Scot Doyon, “Smart Growth = Smart Parenting,” on a blog called PlaceShakers, which bills itself as “people, news and views shaping community.”

As you know, I think community is pretty much the answer to all our ills. The more we trust and depend on each other, the more confident we feel Free-Ranging our kids, the more fun we have in our lives, the more our streets teem with  life and the less lonely we become.

Add to this the dawning realization on the part of city planners that when a neighborhood works for kids, it works for everyone else, too and you get why it is so important to try to build cities and towns that pass the “Popsicle Test.”

Popsicle Test? It’s simply, brilliantly this: A neighborhood “works” if it is possible for an 8-year-old kid to get a Popsicle on his or her own and return before it has completely melted.

That means the streets must be safe enough to cross and the housing close enough to retail. The kids must feel fine about walking outside, ditto their parents (and the police! and busybodies!).  Once all that is in place, not only can children get around on their own, so can everyone else, including old folks.

Note, as does Kaid Benfeld in The Atlantic’s blog regarding the icy treat test:

…there’s no planning jargon in there: nothing explicitly about mixed uses, or connected streets, or sidewalks, or traffic calming, or enough density to put eyes on the street. But, if you think about it, it’s all there.

I’m also fond of the “Halloween test”: If it’s a good neighborhood for trick-or-treating, then it’s likely to be compact and walkable. My brother-in-law, who lives in a place that is anything but, drives his kids to the nearest traditional town center on Halloween. Quite a few parents seem to do the same thing by driving to my neighborhood.

As we have pointed out before: The presence of kids outside indicates a good place to live. And the presence of Popsicles? Even better. Which reminds me…it is snack time right now. — L

I KNOW this isn't a Popsicle emporium. But it looked too good to pass up! (Like a Popsicle itself.)

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.