Another Halloween has come and gone, leaving us almost within reach of the big feasting holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, but still with enough left over trick-or-treating candy to bridge the gap. For the past couple of years (aside from enjoying the pieces nobody wants) I’ve done some post-Halloween reflecting. It is, after all, a great opportunity to practice developing social skills in real life, and I’ve enjoyed watching my own three kids evolve over the years. They’ve gone from shy, scared, young tots too afraid to utter “trick-or-treat” to confident young people who prefer handing out candy over receiving it, for the most part.
Over the years I’ve borne witness to all the Halloween Americana and isms. At earliest recall, my neighborhood would pull out all the stops. One family might stage a haunted house inside their house. Or they’d spend the day concocting their baking best – sticky popcorn balls, delicately wrapped sugar cookies with icing, gooey caramel apples – for us to carry home, if they didn’t get consumed first.
Then very suddenly, into the early 80s, there was the scare of Halloween candy tampering. A little bit of my youth died with that scare, along with my instant gratification needs. If you wanted to eat your Halloween candy after a long stretch of traipsing the neighborhood, you’d have to exhibit patience and self-control, waiting for your parents to sift through and check every piece of your candy. “Hmm, this one looks questionable. The wrapper’s a bit torn,” they’d say. And it would get trashed. Since this was also the decade that saw Tylenol bottles becoming inconspicuous containers of cyanide-laced capsules that killed seven people, the Halloween candy scare seemed all the more probable. Stories arose and circulated each year. Someone’s friend always had a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-cousin, who found a razor blade, needle, or shards of glass in their apples or candy bars on Halloween.
I’ve also seen the rise and fall of popular costumes that would now be considered extemely offensive. In the 70s and 80s it was perfectly acceptable to dress as an “Indian,” or, as an oversize sombrero/serape-wearing Mexican dude. Sort of like Frito Bandito. There were rows and rows of options at Woolworth’s, mostly in the likeness of popular TV cartoon characters. Those were way overpriced for as cheap, inauthentic and unconvincing as they looked, in my opinion. But if your parents chose not to fork over money for one of those boxed, vinyl smocks with matching plastic face mask that felt a little too sharp around the eyes, made you inhale your own facial condensation, and smelled like complete and utter failure, you had plenty of other choices. You could always take some of your father’s clothing and go as a “hobo.” And, of course, the sky was the limit with a brown paper grocery bag, some paint, and your imagination.
One of the more interesting trends I’ve heard about in recent years, though, is the advent of neighborhood (or even town) rules for celebrating Halloween. Now, I’d say it’s perfectly reasonable to put out a memo that Halloween trick-or-treating is to occur on Oct. 31st only. Maybe even a suggested curfew for the benefit of us old folks who like to get in bed by 8:00 p.m., or just prefer not to be bothered by a ringing doorbell at midnight. It might even be a good idea to gently remind folks that if they intend to hand out Halloween candy, the universal symbol for “I’m handing out Halloween candy” is to make sure the front porch or entryway is brightly lit. It saves everyone a lot of time and headache when it’s clear where trick-or-treating is welcome. However, I gotta draw the line with town-issued mandates on Halloween “rules.”
So, I’ve seen Halloween change dramatically in my 40-some years. This year may take the cake, though. A few days ago, a town not too far from me made national news for issuing guidance that in their town, trick-or-treating should be restricted to children under age 13. I read the guidance, and the comments posted on social media regarding the guidance. It was met with both criticism and relief. I then had the misfortune of reading a not-funny, politicized tweet by Donald Trump Jr. regarding his very ignorant, political take on the innocent October “holiday.” (God, he’s smarmy).
Some time later, and compounding ALL my feels, I was dismayed to read a whole string of complaints on my Nextdoor app (which is a whole other issue – yikes) mostly stating that either teens were not welcome for trick-or-treating, or anyone without a costume would not be given candy. Here are just two screenshots I later took of some of the tamer comments:
And then I just sat there and thought, this world has gone to shit.
Now, I can totally understand being angry that someone’s Halloween candy and bowl were stolen. But I mean, c’mon. If you leave out a bowl of free candy with a sign that reads “take one,” then I feel a sense of duty to inform you: you are way too trusting and don’t quite seem to grasp the unfortunate way humanity sometimes works. Stolen candy. Within the first hour. Happens every year. And yet, every year, people complain about it happening to them, as if it’s the biggest violation in the history of thievery. Free candy with no adult supervision, social peer pressure, and a note reading “take only one?” I mean, that’s kinda like leaving cash in an unlocked car outside a pawn shop. You just don’t do it. I don’t mean to victim blame, but damn. This one just seems kind of obvious to me.
What I don’t understand, though, is this apparent contempt for teenagers and the opinion that they have no business trick-or-treating because of their age, or that they are the only people capable of stealing candy or otherwise ruining Halloween for everyone else. I saw it elsewhere on social media as well. Comments like “those damn teens better not show up at my house this year. I’m not giving them free anything!” or “Teenagers close to being adults should not be out trick-or-treating.” or, “If they do show up, they’d better wear a costume!”
So, I sat and I thought for a minute. You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like ageism and racism. I wondered if these same people posting comments felt equally appalled at both black and white teens trick-or-treating. Then I composed my thoughts in a very long response to someone, which read:
Look. I’ll admit it. I used to think like that, too. “Those damn teenagers better not come around my house being loud and obnoxious, looking for freebies & handouts. And they’d better be in costume. But not too scary.”
Then I suddenly found myself the parent of two teens and one tween, and I realized they’re not so bad.
Regardless, I guess I have one of those “piece of crap” teens you’re referring to, who will be out trick-or-treating this year. Not stealing, I’m sure, but trick-or-treating.
Hell yeah, he’s going trick-or-treating because you know what? He’s 17, a senior, has already applied for early admission to college, and the realization that it’s his last year at home has set in and it has gotten him anxious like a raw nerve.
I know that he’s terrified, but you’d never know it by the good brave face he puts on.
You don’t know my “crappy teenager.” Let me tell you about him. He’s an AP Honors student with a 4.36 GPA, he works a part-time job every day after school, from 4-9pm and daily all summer long, and he still manages to kick butt academically AND balance his social life, a girlfriend, and his family obligations. He’s actually very polite, too.
He doesn’t ask for “freebies,” or assume he’s entitled to them. He uses the family car and pays for his own gas every week. He buys his own food and clothes. He cooks, cleans, and does his own laundry.
He wants to be a genetic engineer, and also work with people in the medical field. Not only does he have the brain for engineering, but he also has the temperament for excellent people skills. He doesn’t even think twice about opening & holding doors open in public for parents with strollers or senior citizens. If he sees me carrying a heavy laundry basket down the stairs, he says, “Mom, let me get that.” And then he does. Every time.
That is my “crappy teen,” my “teenager close to being an adult,” and he will be out trick-or-treating this year, in a costume he designed himself and his grandmother was kind enough to sew for him. You will see him walking hand-in-hand with his girlfriend. They’re going as The Joker (Heath Ledger’s, not Jared Leto’s), and Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. He’s trick-or-treating because it’s probably the last time he’ll ever get to do it.
I’m THANKFUL my teenage-almost-adult kid wants to trick-or-treat and feel nostalgic for his youth. I’m thankful that he’s choosing trick-or-treating instead of attending a frat row party other teens his age are attending where they may feel pressure to drink underage and then not handle themselves very well.
Every teenager trick-or-treating on Halloween is really just wanting the candy and nostalgia (they’re not “tricking”), and every teenager asking for free candy is one less teenager getting into some kind of trouble. Most of these “crappy teens” are just trying to reclaim their youth and feel carefree, one time a year, between the absolute hellish stress that is high school and college application period.
So I guess my bigger issue is, being the parent of two teenagers and one tween now, my perspective has shifted, and unfortunately, when I hear people in my community making negative generalizations about teens, or implying they aren’t worthy of enjoying Halloween at all, sadly, it’s often code for racism and/or ageism.
Case in point: 15 years ago, my husband & I used to believe Halloween was only for little kids. We used to make comments like “No candy for obnoxious teens,” without bothering to get to know them. Or, “we don’t give candy out if you don’t put some effort in and wear a costume.”
While it was absolutely our prerogative to do that, over time, we eventually felt that we were enabling ageism and racism to exist by allowing ourselves to think that way. We learned that just because a group of teens shows up and they are rowdy doesn’t mean that they are “obnoxious,” “immature,” “disrespectful,” or bad people. It doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have safe, harmless fun once a year and get some free candy.
We noticed that the pattern over the years showed it was very frequently black and brown teens who were not dressed in costumes. Or maybe just wearing a mask and regular clothing. Or arriving in droves in the back of pick-up trucks.
We quickly learned that by engaging with teens who showed up without a costume, or even with those parents who drove giant groups of kids in pick-up trucks from one neighborhood to the next, all of these people were decent, kind human beings just trying to have some fun and hold onto their childhood a little bit longer. We felt remorseful for having assumed the worst in people who we knew nothing about.
For the parents driving the pick-up truck full of dozens of kids, I found out that they lived in apartments in a very low income area where nobody could afford to give out candy, so they had no choice but to go to other neighborhoods if their kids wanted to trick or treat at all. And the reason they were driving was not because they were lazy, but because 1.) they had a kid with them who was handicapped, and 2.) it was too far to walk from their area of low income housing to the rest of suburban civilization.
For a lot of the uncostumed teens we spoke with, frequently the pattern seemed to indicate in one way or another that they were too embarrassed to be seen wearing a costume and trick-or-treating, but at the same time, not yet old enough to let go of the tradition altogether. Some teens simply couldn’t afford costumes. Some kids & teens have sensory issues. Actually, all three of my kids had sensory issues with fabrics and textures throughout their childhoods, so we were lucky if the costumes stayed on in full past the fourth or fifth house.
Anecdotally, I get tired of hearing the argument that teens should not be trick-or-treating at all, that they’re “too old,” that they should “get a job and buy their own candy,” that “they’d better put some effort into a costume.” Those are things that I’m more sensitive to hearing now that I’m a parent of a couple of hard-working teens. And we hear those things a lot, typically from people in our community who have only young kids, or older folks who may have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager in the world.
Sure, I suppose my son could choose to sit this one out, but this Halloween will most likely be his very last to enjoy trick-or-treating in the neighborhood where he grew up, and he’s already feeling a little salty about that. A seemingly tiny thing to care about, but what it’s really about is the underlying issue of anxiety over the looming burdens of adulthood and the loss of innocent childhood.
Having said that, I really don’t like knowing there are people out there who will see my 17-year-old trick-or-treating, not knowing anything about him or his situation, and make a judgment that he’s too old for this, is “obnoxious,” doesn’t have a “good enough” costume, or “too scary” of a costume, or worse, that they might say these things to his face. And we are a middle-class, heteronormative, white family. That alone makes us privileged. I can only imagine what parents of black and brown teens must be feeling and thinking, already knowing their kids are judged everywhere in every day life, but also, are judged on what should be a judgment free, safe, fun holiday for all. Let’s all work to save the judgment and call a ceasefire on teenager stereotypes. This is, after all, the generation who will be one day taking care of us. Let’s take care of them.
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