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Are overprotective parents ruining Halloween?

Is ‘trunk-or-treating’ a safe and fun alternative for kids to meet new people and get extra candy, or is it an activity born of fear preventing children from growth?

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Jayden Hart and Nicole Hart reach for candy from the Salt Lake City police department’s Trunk or Treat at the Utah Foster Care Pumpkin Festival at The Gateway in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Halloween can be scary for kids. That’s half the fun. But these days, it may be parents who are most frightened. And that could be a problem.

Nearly 77% of parents report being fearful on Halloween. They worry about their kids being hit by a car or truck (31%), poisoning from tampered or spoiled treats (24%), abductions (15%), and other fears, according to a national survey conducted by Safe Kids Worldwide. Their fears aren’t entirely without justification: children are more than twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car on Halloween than any other day of the year.

Some parents are taking their kids off the streets with more controlled Halloween alternatives. While “traditional” trick-or-treating is reportedly on the decline, trunk-or-treating — in which kids go from vehicle to vehicle in a parking lot to ask for candy under the safe, watchful eye of parents or police — has grown in popularity over the past decade.

But some child psychologists and parenting experts have raised concerns about trunk-or-treats, saying that the practice deprives children of the growing opportunity traditional trick-or-treating provides — to step into the dark and out of one’s comfort zone, to get to know one’s neighbors, and to develop confidence and independence — and is emblematic of a larger national debate about overprotective vs. free-range parenting

“The trunk-or-treat events are making the child’s world smaller and more predictable, which is unfortunate because that’s not a sample of what real life is like,” said Bonnie Zucker, child psychologist and author of “Anxiety-Free Kids.” “If we eliminate this opportunity for children to gain confidence, particularly when it’s rooted in our own parental anxiety, we’re doing a potential disservice to the child.” 

Is “trunk-or-treating” a safe and fun alternative for kids to meet new people and get extra candy — or is it the result of overprotective parenting that’s ruining Halloween?

Halloween isn’t just about candy

Parental fears about Halloween date back to the 1960s, when an urban legend began circulating that neighbors were putting razor blades in apples, spurring the rise of “stranger danger.” Some real horror stories followed: Ronald O’Bryan, Houston’s “Candy Man,” murdered his 8-year-old son on Halloween with a cyanide-stuffed Pixy Stix in 1974, and in 1982, seven people were killed in Illinois around Halloween with cyanide-laced Tylenol. In response, city councils began issuing official trick-or-treat hours and age restrictions.

“It is billed as a safe alternative to trick-or-treating, which immediately makes trick-or-treating sound like it’s dangerous — which it isn’t.” — Lenore Skenazy

The media hype that resulted from these rare, shocking incidents created a fear among parents that still affects parents today, when in fact studies show that the risk of poisoning and abduction by neighbors on Halloween is extremely low, said Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to childhood independence.

That’s why Skenazy, who started the free-range parenting movement, takes issue with trunk-or-treat events: because they help perpetuate the notion that allowing children to participate in traditional trick-or-treating is unsafe, she said.

“It is billed as a safe alternative to trick-or-treating, which immediately makes trick-or-treating sound like it’s dangerous — which it isn’t,” she said.

The more sanitized nature of trunk-or-treats may soothe parents’ fears, but in Skenazy’s view, they place too much focus on candy and overlook what makes trick-or-treating a powerful growing experience for kids: the chance to taste the fears and freedoms associated with adulthood.

“It’s a holiday when kids get to practice being adults for a night,” she said. “They have to put on adult clothes — Superman, a police officer, a doctor, or a rock star. Then they have to go to their job, which is cold-calling their neighbors. They have to engage in a little conversation with adults, which is trick-or-treating. And then they are responsible for bringing home the goods.”

This experience presents children with new challenges and new rewards: the fear of going out into the dark, getting lost, and talking to new people, and also the thrill of navigating the world by yourself, bonding with your friends, and trying on a new persona. 

“It’s the one time of year that we say to kids: we trust you to be responsible and resourceful,” she said. “And even on that one day, we are taking that away from them, and instead giving them the opportunity to collect candy in a sanitized, safe environment, as if the holiday is all about candy.”

For children who suffer from anxiety disorders, Halloween can be a particularly powerful growing experience, according to Zucker.

“For kids with social anxiety or separation anxiety, we definitely want them to face their fears,” said Zucker. “Even if we have to do it in a step-by-step fashion, where they only do five houses this year and 10 houses next year, we definitely want them to get out there and explore the world. Anytime we do something that’s hard for us, we become more confident.” 


Salt Lake City police explorer Finau Angilau high-fives Iker Tercero, dressed as Spider Man, at the Utah Foster Care Pumpkin Festival at The Gateway in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Building community — or delaying maturity?

But while some see trunk-or-treat events as taking kids away from their communities and making them less trustful of their neighbors and the world around them, others view them as a powerful vehicle (pun intended) to build trust within communities. 

One of those people is County Commissioner Jeff Wall of Madison County, Tennessee. In 2007, he noticed that across the nation, the relationship between youth and law enforcement had deteriorated and kids were looking at police with distrust and fear. So he had the idea of bringing kids, parents, police officers and first responders to the same trunk-or-treat event. 

“The idea was simply to bring our community closer together,” said Wall. “I was trying to bring everyone under one roof so that children could develop a positive relationship with law enforcement and see the good that they do for the community.” 

The first year, there was just one fire truck and one patrol car. Wall picked up $100 worth of candy from Sam’s Club and was delighted when 60 people showed up. But it grew into an annual event. In 2017, 3 million pieces of candy were handed out at the Jackson-Madison County Trunk-or-Treat. This year’s event, held Monday, drew a record crowd of 16,000 children and their families, with a $15,000 budget funded by local businesses, he said.

For kids living in neighborhoods with high crime rates, or in rural areas where there is no place to go trick-or-treating at all, trunk-or-treats are a great solution to ensure that children have a fun Halloween experience and allow community members to get to know each other in a positive environment, said Susan Groner, founder of The Parenting Mentor.

David Nelson, professor of family studies at Brigham Young University, agrees. Nelson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said his congregation hosts a trunk-or-treat every year as a church social.

“It comes down to context and the reasons people are engaging in these events,” said Nelson. “If you’re using it to create community connections, it’s a great idea. If you’re using it to delay maturity in your kids, it’s a terrible idea.”

Skenazy said the important thing for parents to focus on is giving kids opportunities to gain trust in the world around them and build confidence — and sometimes the best way to do so is by allowing kids to step out of their comfort zone.

“Halloween is an opportunity for spontaneity and adventure,” she said. “What can make your kids safer than anything is confidence, learning how to be flexible and resourceful, dealing with surprises, so they can improvise when something goes wrong.”