The last time Ryan Maietta dressed up in costume and went trick-or-treating on Halloween, he was 16 and decked out as Edward Scissorhands. Some adults seemed happy to see him; others, well, not so much.
“My friends and I got some negative comments, like, ‘You're too old to be trick-or-treating,’” Ryan, now 18, told TODAY of his trick-or-treating finale. “We noticed that we would be given barely any candy, while the other kids would be given handfuls. It wasn't really the candy that was important, but the sense that the adults didn't want us there that put me off from continuing to trick-or-treat.”
Just what exactly is the right age — the sweet spot, if you will — for kids to hang up their treat bags for good? The answer isn’t as black and white as that spooky skeleton ringing your bell on Oct. 31.
Many kids outgrow this youthful part of Halloween on their own, opting to attend parties instead or to hand out candy at home. And with safety in mind, some communities restrict trick-or-treating, often to children 12 and younger.
When older kids still want to trick-or-treat, parents would be wise to ask about their motivations for the evening known not just for sweets, but for shaving cream, too.
“Are they going out in the spirit of the holiday, or are they going out to make trouble in the dark with everybody’s door open?” says Dr. Marilyn Metzl, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Kansas City, Missouri. “It can be both fun and exciting, or an invitation for disaster.”
The decision on when to stop varies by child and family, but generally, there should be no age limit on kids dressing up and having safe fun, said Metzl, who works with children and families.
Ryan Maietta’s mom, Helen Ryan, loves opening the door to teenage trick-or-treaters like her own, the ones who put time and effort into an actual costume and are respectful and polite. Why should teens stay home, chatting online, she wondered, when they could be out on Halloween, interacting with friends and neighbors and getting to feel like a kid?
“There’s so much pressure in high school,” said Helen Ryan, of Murrieta, California. “They can take a moment and be carefree — all they have to do is dress up. It’s like a moment for them to play and revisit their younger years.”
Her 15-year-old daughter, Kyra Maietta, puts great effort into her elaborate costumes for trick-or-treating. The high school sophomore created a hand-painted “Attack on Titan” look last year and plans to become Captain America when she trick-or-treats this Halloween.
“They still love it,” Helen Ryan said. “They love the whole being together and dressing up and seeing each other’s costume and going trick-or-treating.”
Not everyone thinks kids still should be knocking on doors after middle school.
Stephanie Merchant sees this Halloween as the last trick-or-treat for her 13-year-old daughter, who is dressing as Maleficent. Merchant noticed her daughter, now an eighth grader, seemed less excited on the candy hunt last year, when she went as a flapper.
“They’re at the stage where they’re kind of a kid and kind of an adult,” said Merchant, of Houston. “They’re not quite comfortable but still want to participate and have some fun.”
“I definitely think by high school she’ll be done with that part of it,” she said.
Amy Weir's 14-year-old daughter, a high school freshman, had her last trick-or-treat two years ago and attended a party last year. “She really decided on her own,” said Weir, who also lives in Houston.
Trick-or-treating in middle school is OK, but when the kids are older it can feel a bit wrong, Weir said, especially if they don't have much of a costume and don’t seem very excited.
“It can be kind of uncomfortable if you’re a homeowner with teenagers there expecting something,” she said. “It seems like it just doesn’t work.”
At the high school stage, Weir said, “It’s lost that whole excitement of the spirit of Halloween.”
Laura Barta, whose teenagers retired from trick-or-treating around seventh grade, required them to dress from head to toe in enough of a costume that people wouldn’t have to ask who they were.
It’s the same standard she hopes to find when she opens her door on Halloween. Although she’ll hand over treats to all comers, the joy of Halloween isn’t just for candy-getters, but for givers as well.
“I don’t want a teenager at my door asking for something if they’re not in the spirit of the holiday,” said Barta, of Hershey, Pennsylvania, who has found sullen teens at her door. “It’s just not fun because they don’t seem happy and upbeat.”
Heidi Waterfield of San Francisco, whose 14-year-old daughter had a great time trick-or-treating last year as Professor McGonagall from the “Harry Potter” series, likes the idea of costumed teens participating — as long they arrive early enough in the night with motives that are pure.
“I’m still happy to give them candy as long as they don’t smash my pumpkins,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a fun night, and if they’re not harming anyone, why not let them enjoy?”
Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.