A friend told me that Halloween used to scare her when she was a little girl, "but not nearly so much as it scares me now that I'm a parent!"
A lot of parents are freaked out on Halloween, and not by goblins, ghosts and witches. It’s cars and strangers and candy with hidden razor blades that scare us now.
Kids often push the envelope on Halloween. They want to pick their own costumes, go out without their coats, head off on their own, stay out late and stay up even later. The night can be filled with parenting battles, but here’s some great news: You don't have to fight them all.
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In most places, Halloween is one of the safest nights of the year. More adults than usual are walking outside, and everyone knows there are kids out there, too. Though some people may choose to keep their porch and front lights out, most of us are looking at each other’s costumes and smiling at each other’s kids. We’re feeling neighborly.
That’s why Halloween is actually a great time to give our kids a little more freedom as they learn to navigate the world.
What can we let them do?
- Ages 3-5: "I don't need a coat!" OK. "You can carry your coat. Or, if you don't take a coat, we have to stay on our street so we can come back home if it gets too cold for you." This is a great night to let life teach the lesson. And take it from a doctor … being cold doesn’t make you sick.
- Ages 6-8: "I can cross the street by myself." Fine. "We'll walk together, but you can be in charge of the timing. You say when it's safe to cross." Your child may already know how to cross a street safely, so this is a great time to give her a chance to prove it. If she doesn’t, grab that hand!
- Ages 9-11: "I can do this block without you." OK. "Try a few houses on your own, then meet me here." Or "Yes, but you have to stay with your group, no matter what. Meet me at the stop sign."
- Ages 12-14: "I want to go with my friends, not with you!" Yup. It's time.
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How do you know they're ready?
Try this test:
- Picture your child doing what he’s asking to do.
- Think of the things you're worried might go wrong. Not alien abduction, but real things that could cause problems.
- Ask your child (before the big night) what he would do in that situation.
- Decide if his answer shows good judgment.
- Picture your son asking to go trick-or-treating with his friends, not with you.
- Think about what worries you: He could get separated from his friends and get lost.
- Ask, "What would you do if you couldn't find your friends and realized you were lost?" "I'd ask a mom with kids if I could use her cellphone to call you."
- Decide: That’s a reasonable answer. "Off you go, but you must be home by ..."
If he said, "I don't know, go into some stranger's house and use the phone," I’d suggest that he needs to go with you and try again next year. But if he has a good idea how to handle problems, this is probably a good time to let him try!
What if your child doesn't want to “level up”?
Some kids are naturally cautious. If your child just doesn't like the scary theme behind this candy free-for-all, then let her stay close. But if you have a Halloween lover and you'd like to use the evening to get her to stretch her wings a bit, here is a trick that often works:
See if you can find a way to team your child up with a good friend who is more independent — a kid you know is a good kid — and ask your child if she’d like to join forces with that kid’s family. Kids will often try to keep up with a friend who is running up to a door, even if the grownup who’s with them is a little slow. Those more adventurous friends can help make doing things with less parent supervision normal. But choose wisely. All kids have bad judgment sometimes, and you don't want to land your child in trouble later by saying "Just do what that kid does!" We can help our kids learn from others while supporting their own decision-making.
Halloween can be tons of fun for kids, and it can be a great night for them to learn new responsibilities and resilience. We, their parents, just have to decide not to be spooked.
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TODAY Tastemaker Dr. Debi Gilboa is a family physician and mom of four boys. Read more from her here.