"Trick or treat! Trick or treat! Give us something lethal to eat!"
That's not the actual rhyme, but from all the warnings about Halloween, you just might think it was. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics is still insisting that "a responsible adult should closely examine all treats."
But why? Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, first put a stake through the poison-candy rumor all the way back in 1985, when he did a study of newspapers dating back to 1958, looking for "child poisoned by Halloween candy" news stories.
He found none -- because there was none. One time, a boy in Texas did die because of poisoned Pixy Stix, but cops quickly discovered that his own dad, $100,000 in debt, had just taken out a life insurance policy on him. Dad was dispatched to that haunted house in the sky (or down below). Yet we still use this fear of neighbors as psychopaths as an excuse to curtail our kids' Halloween fun.
We trot out plenty of other threadbare fears, too. Last week, Patch reminded its readers of a girl murdered in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, by a man later referred to as the Halloween Killer. That crime was in 1973 -- 44 years ago. Yet that single sad story is the excuse Patch gives for publishing maps of the homes of men, women and children on the sex offender registry.
That may sound like a public service. But it's actually like telling people never to go to Manhattan because once there was a terrorist attack there. When Johns Hopkins University professor Elizabeth Letourneau did a study of sex crimes on Halloween, she was shocked to find that not only is there no bump in the numbers on Halloween but also the day is actually remarkably low in crimes against kids. In fact, she said, "we thought about calling it 'Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year.'"
And then there are the fears spread simply by the way Halloween is morphing from child holiday into supervision on steroids. Kids trooping door to door seems less and less normal as communities, churches and schools sponsor chaperoned parties and "trunk-or-treating" events. That's when parents park their cars in a circle and open up the trunks, which are decorated and filled with candy. Nothing wrong with that new tradition, except that it is edging out the far older one of kids walking around their neighborhood.
Trunk-or-treating is a perfect example of modern-day childhood. We have taken away all the independence of the most liberating holiday of the year and replaced it with something that grown-ups may feel is just as good -- plenty of candy -- even though so many thrilling elements are gone: the bravery kids get when they knock at the cobwebbed house, the confidence they get from being trusted to go out at night, the triumph they feel returning home with the fruits of their labor, and the memories they make the way most of us did, goofing around without a parent always watching.
That's a lot to trade for a trunk of easily accessed candy.
Holidays always evolve, of course. Sleighs evolve into SUVs; taffy apples evolve into fun-size Snickers. (Aren't all Snickers fun?) But trick-or-treating did not just evolve into a riot of overprotection. That is a decision adults have made, fueled by the forces insisting that our very safe kids are not safe enough to have the kind of fun and freedom we did.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog "Free-Range Kids" and a hilarious keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. Run out and get her book "Has the World Gone Skenazy?"