Halloween rivals birthdays as the best day of a child’s celebratory calendar. My children spend hours debating costume options, [My thoughts on why most are nixed are here] and plotting where to trick-or-treat so that they end the evening with more candy than any human should ingest in a year. For those of us charged with supervising these sugar-fueled hellions, the holiday requires vigilance – because some strangers with candy are truly scary. Halloween was easier when I was a child in New York City. A pack of us would traverse the floors of one friend’s apartment building and then go through our bounty in that friend’s apartment. My parents never accompanied me and I’m hazy on whether or not there was an adult presence for anything other than the great sugar sorting.
Back then, my mother would often say, “There aren’t classes on how to be a parent.” But there was plenty of news media, and on May 25, 1979, the concept of ‘Stranger Danger’ became a parenting mantra thanks to the tragic disappearance of Etan Patz, the eight-year-old who vanished from Manhattan on the way to school.
Nowadays there are a plethora of lectures, workshops and courses to address every aspect of parenting. I attend many of them and rarely come away calmer. The more you know, the more there is to worry about.
At a recent workshop focused on child safety the speaker warned the assembled over-achieving neurotics not to “focus on ‘stranger danger.’ Worry about the guy next door who pays too much attention to your kid. Or the coach who offers to drive your child home,” she advised. It’s often not the stranger who is a threat to your child – there are tragic exceptions, of course, but statistically it’s the devil you know who is more likely to harm your child rather than the random, sick stranger.
One day, shortly after the above-referenced Pattie Fitzgerald, lecture I tried to practice what she had preached. My daughter and I were walking in downtown Santa Monica when I noticed a woman in a white bathrobe walking toward us. “She is dressed oddly… she gives me a bit of that ‘Uh, oh feeling’. Let’s cross the street,” I said.
“Mother, she is wearing a wrap coat,” replied my eye-rolling daughter. I went to the ophthalmologist shortly thereafter to get new glasses.
Nevertheless, I persevered.
“Wouldn’t it be silly if an adult told a child a secret,” I would tell my children whenever I found the opportunity to interject it lightly, trying to immunize them against the neighborhood pedophile who might be grooming them as prey. The kids nodded carelessly, blissfully ignorant of so many of life’s dangers. At other times, I chose a different vaccine: “Don’t tell anyone – but I love you.” “Mom,” my son would say, “everyone knows that.” Adults – the good ones we hope are part of our child-raising village – don’t share confidences with children from other households. Nor do they ask random children to assist them in locating a missing pet.
I think I’ve gotten through to both kids about the creepy people that may be prowling for them… just in time for Halloween when children everywhere are encouraged to knock on strangers’ doors and ask for free stuff – in the dark no less.
What could go wrong? Not much, as it turns out, because we go in a group, with flashlights, and return home before the older crowds are out to trick as much as treat. And because most strangers with candy are parents or grandparents who enjoy making kids smile.
On Halloween each year my husband and I drive to a friend’s place so we can scout for sugar together. Even though I hate driving on October 31st – kids made hazy by the dusk’s light darting in all directions – crosswalks be damned — makes me even more stressed than driving in a parking lot. But we do it in a group, flashlights in hand, reminding the assembled ghouls to thank the strangers with candy and not to take too much – I fear my children being ill-mannered more than the stranger dispensing candy.
We walk the streets talking to strangers, gathering candy amongst all manner of princesses, goblins — and the pop culture character(s) du jour. We greet each and every dog we encounter along the way. And despite my understanding of who is most dangerous to a child, I’m conditioned and thus I keep an eye out for an ‘icky’ strangers with candy who could ruin Halloween forever.