Dressing in costume, being out at night, collecting candy — there are multiple factors that bring kids a thrill on Halloween. The opportunity to stroll throughout the neighbourhood without adult supervision can add even more excitement for kids, who gain independence and confidence through such experiences.
Yet it seems that few children these days are partaking in this ritual on their own.
A recent Mott poll found that only 15% of parents allow their kids ages 9-11 to go trick or treating without adult supervision. This number is even lower than for other independent activities, such as walking or biking by themselves to a friend’s house (33%) or finding an item in a store while a parent is in another aisle (50%).
Eighty-four percent of parents of children ages 9-11 agreed that children benefit from having free time without adult supervision, but the number who reported letting their kids engage in common activities by themselves was much lower.
Pattie Fitzgerald, a child safety educator and author, said that she wasn’t surprised by the low number of parents who allow trick or treating unsupervised.
“Parents are scared more than ever, sometimes for not a good reason,” she said. “But there’s two sides of that coin. There’s also the fact that parents are a little more aware of what could happen these days.”
Is there a way to know when kids are ready to roam sans adults on Halloween?
HuffPost spoke with safety experts and parents about when to allow kids this freedom. The general consensus was that age 12 is about the right time to let kids trick or treat alone, but there are a number of factors to take into consideration, as well as some basic safety tips kids should know before they head out.
What’s the real threat?
Parents may be spooked by the boogeyman of “stranger danger,” perhaps having grown up hearing tales of child abductions themselves. But such crimes are extremely rare.
Other, more quotidian, dangers pose more of a threat to kids’ safety.
Cars are a primary point of concern for Amanda Green, a Florida mother of two children, ages 8 and 5.
“I feel very safe in our neighborhood and we have wonderful neighbors and friends, but Halloween often adds extra nighttime traffic,” she said. “I worry about drivers or groups of children not making the best decisions on and near the roads. For this reason, I walk behind them at a safe distance as they go door to door.”
Mary Beth Foster, mother of a 9- and 6-year-old in North Carolina, also stays with her kids due to concerns about their visibility. She said that in her neighbourhood, “there are not sidewalks or streetlights. It’s small enough that they are allowed to walk/scoot/ride around the same area during daylight, but I can’t see them wanting to go out on their own at night.”
Whether you are deciding if kids can go without an adult or planning your route, emphasise safe street crossings. There are also additional steps you can take to make your kids highly visible to drivers.
“Flashlights, glow sticks and reflective tape are essential to help children and parents easily see and be seen,” Holtzman said. “Reflective tape should be attached to costumes, sacks and bags to increase visibility of children to drivers.” She noted that children should stick to well-lit streets and stay on the sidewalk. If there is no sidewalk, she said, “they should walk at the farthest edge of the roadway facing traffic.”
Falls and burns are other common injuries for children. To avoid these on Halloween night, Holtzman said to “make sure your child’s entire costume (including beards, masks and wigs) are clearly marked as flame resistant, or look for flame resistant fabrics such as nylon or polyester.”
“Costumes should be short enough so the child will not trip or fall,” she added. “Select well-fitting, comfortable, sturdy shoes.”
If you are planning to give out candy, make sure your porch is well-lit and free of obstacles that children might stumble on. You can safely use small votive lights, glow sticks or flashlights instead of candles to light jack-o’-lanterns.
Think about your specific neighbourhood
Take into account what your neighbourhood is like and make sure kids have a planned route or clear boundaries.
“I’ve let my 10-year-old twins and 12-year-old go by themselves/with friends for the past two years within a certain parameter we set,” said Meg St. Esprit, a mother of four in Pennsylvania.
“We live in a walkable city neighbourhood where most adults know them, and there are multiple first responders, crossing guards and other adults I trust out and about,” she said, noting that she is out with their younger sibling and everyone’s paths cross throughout the evening.
Rihannon Giles, a mom in North Carolina, said, “I started letting my now 13-year-old trick or treat with friends without supervision when she was about ten. But there is a large circle down the street that blocks off the street, so I tell them to stick to that. I’ll let my now 8-year-old son go with the big kids.”
Communicate and make a plan
Holly Zoccolan, a mother of two and founder of the parenting app Carol, said to “make sure your child is well-acquainted with the neighbourhood.”
Both Zoccolan and Holtzman recommended making a practice run before the big day. “Before Halloween night, I recommend taking a pre-trick-or-treat adventure with your child to inspect the route, focusing on streetlights and crosswalk locations,” Holtzman said.
If you’ve been sticking to the same streets every year, your kids will probably learn the route well. Karon Clark Warren, a mother of two in Georgia, explained that one reason she let her son trick or treat with his friend at age 12 was that “after years of trick or treating in the same neighborhood, they felt comfortable with the neighbors and the area.”
You should also establish when and where you will meet — keeping in mind what time the sun will set if you want them back before dark.
“Set a curfew for their return. It’s a good idea for them to go out while it’s still light outside and to return at a pre-arranged time,” said Zoccolan.
Many parents prefer that their child, or at least one child in the group, have a cell phone on them. A phone or smartwatch can help both parents and kids feel safe — but remember that technology can be a distraction from a child’s surroundings. Walking while looking down at the screen poses its own risk of trips, falls or stepping into traffic.
Find safety in numbers
Since most children want to trick or treat with their peers, they’re usually amenable to sticking with friends or siblings.
“A group is not only more visible to drivers but can also deter any would-be troublemakers,” Zoccolan said.
You should know both who they’re with and how to reach them.
“It’s important to know who they’re with and have contact numbers for both their friends and their parents,” Holtzman said. “Teach them to only stop at houses with their outside lights on, and remind them to never enter inside anyone’s home, yard or car.”
Consider your child’s developmental age and talk through safety concerns
At the end of the day, no guidelines are one-size-fits-all, and you know your child best. Fitzgerald said she feels that most kids younger than 11 probably aren’t yet ready to trick or treat without supervision, but parents must “consider not just the chronological age, but the developmental age that their kids are in.”
“They may know the area and the neighborhood, but they’re not necessarily developmentally mature enough to make an executive decision at the last minute,” she continued.
You’ll also want to talk through some basic personal safety concepts with your child. These include how to deal with “tricky people,” as Fitzgerald calls them.
“Tricky people are people who tell you to do something that either doesn’t sound right or goes against the rule,” she explained.
Will your child understand that they should say no or call to check in with you if they are invited to a party outside the designated area? It takes a certain level of maturity for a kid to be able to handle this kind of situation on a festive night in which a child “could have a false sense of security and bravado,” Fitzgerald said.
An “ultimate safe stop” such as a friend’s home or a store along the route may come in handy if a tricky situation does arise. Fitzgerald also recommended that kids and parents agree on a code word or emoji they can use to signal that they need help, allowing kids to exit sticky a situation (“My mom is calling, I have to go home”) without drawing any unwanted attention.
When they’re ready, Halloween can be a great opportunity for kids to practice a little independence. And if your kids aren’t quite ready to go it alone, you can let them test the waters by knocking on doors while you stay on the sidewalk, or visiting the houses on one side of the street while you wait on the corner until they’re ready to cross.