Should Parents Let Their Teens Trick or Treat?

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A scene from last year:

Four boys too tall and too gangly to pass for being under 12 showed up on my doorstep in costumes that were clearly last minute and uninspired. They shoved and joked with each other, laughing and stumbling up my steps. Bashfully, they held out pillow cases and shopping bags for my contribution to their hoards. They let me goof with them a bit as I tossed candy bars their way. One remembered to say “Thank you.”

It was harmless fun. It was probably the last year I’d see them on Halloween night. I didn’t begrudge them some candy as they said goodbye to childhood with a last Halloween hurrah.

Contrast this with another group:

Two teenaged boys and a girl, arrived at my door well past when the younger kids had called it a night. Each had donned a scary mask as their only costume. The boys loomed over me. “Trick or Treat,” said one with a growl to match his mask. I was suddenly aware that I’m old and I was alone and not feeling safe. I gave them each a candy bar but was angrily informed by the girl that anything with coconut was unacceptable.

I was relieved when they turned to go back out into the night and into a car I hadn’t noticed before. I switched off my porch light and locked my door. Any fun I had been having throughout the evening was erased.

The debate about when someone is “too old” to participate in the fun of trick or treating rages on the internet. In some communities across the U.S., it is illegal for kids over the age of 12 to go out for treats. Some blogs argue that trick or treating is a last gasp of childhood and that we shouldn’t begrudge teens, even teens who don’t bother to dress up, a candy bar. Others suggest that allowing teens to “shake us down” for candy is promoting antisocial behavior. Still others make the specious argument that if the teens weren’t trick or treating, they would be doing something else (usually dangerous, illegal or immoral) — as if the only alternative to trick or treating is risky behavior.

Whether teenagers should be allowed to trick or treat is not, then, a simple question.

Parents Need to Be Parents

The answer to the question of yes or no for teen trick or treating lies with us — the parents. From my point of view, it is our responsibility to gauge our own teens’ developmental stage and their intentions. Are they going out for some innocent fun? Fine. To scare little kids and get off on intimidating people? Not fine at all.

It’s up to us parents to talk with our teens about how best to celebrate the holiday and it’s our responsibility to draw limits when necessary. Yes, a legal age limit or curfew can let us off the hook some. But it’s really our job to help our teens make mature decisions.

Generally good kids will be appropriate. Parents of such teens can relax about Halloween because their kids have earned their trust. These teens are well aware they are on the edge of being too old. They understand the need to go out early and to choose costumes that won’t scare the little kids. Many are relieved to be given the job of taking younger siblings and neighborhood kids out. Few adults begrudge a teen a candy bar if they are accompanying a princess or a passel of goblins.

Teens who are bent on mischief, on the other hand, need parents who are willing to have uncomfortable conversations and perhaps to set equally uncomfortable limits. These teens need to be reminded that what is just goofing around to them may seem threatening to single moms or elderly people who open their doors. Being disrespectful when refused a treat only reinforces some adults’ opinions that teens are rude and entitled. If they can’t be trusted to follow reasonable rules for trick or treating, they need to be directed to an age-appropriate activity or confined to quarters for the night — even if, especially if, they are furious. Anger at reasonable rules only supports the fact that they aren’t mature enough to be out there.

I simply don’t agree that being deprived of trick or treating ensures that teens will drink, abuse drugs, and have orgies. There are alternatives to marauding the town. Some secondary schools encourage students to wear costumes for a day or hold a Halloween dance. Farms in rural communities have hayrides or corn mazes with adult (and teens)-only themes. Parents can provide a memorable Halloween for teens and their friends by hosting a costume party with plenty of treats, music, ghost stories, and some unobtrusive adult supervision.

There is no wide-spread agreement about when childhood ends. But childhood does, in fact, end.

Transitioning from being a kid who gets candy to being one of the big people who passes it out at the door is a marker of that reality. Most kids make that transition on their own. But when they don’t, it is up to us parents to be parents. We need to make it clear to our growing children which side of the door they belong on.