I love you, and I hate you. The itty-bitty baby costumes are so cute, and the way my kids’ faces light up in anticipation of trick-or-treating is something special.
But also? UGH. Too-sexy costumes for little girls, gory images that give my preschooler nightmares, and more sugar in a single day than my toddler has consumed in her entire life.
Since I don’t think you’re going anywhere anytime soon, Halloween, this year I’ve decided to bring my parenting A-game. Got it? Let’s go.
I don’t think any other time of year packs quite the same punch as Halloween when it comes to parenting challenges. At every turn we’re handed a candy-coated opportunity to answer tough questions (“Mom, why is that girl wearing her underwear as a costume?”), comfort fearful kids spooked by things they see, um, everywhere, and deal with the behavioral upheaval that comes free of charge when you combine large quantities of sugar with staying up past bedtime.
Don’t get me wrong: I love it all. Every year it seems to get more and more fun, and we’ll be partaking in all the traditions this week, from pumpkin carving to trick-or-treating, from melting down at bedtime to arguing over candy consumption in the days that follow. But in an effort to stay a step ahead of some of the sticky situations Halloween brings, I’m also stepping up my parenting game this week.
Here are four parenting challenges that pop up this time of year, and a few thoughts on how to handle them with your kids.
Scary Stuff & Fearful Kids
Both my toddler and my preschooler are dealing with Halloween fears this year. Animated yard displays and battery-operated decorations make my one-year-old bury her head in my shoulder. My four-year-old has a much more sophisticated imagination, so for him it’s all spooky fun during daylight hours, and then at bedtime we get a lot of questions about zombies and vampires.
- Anticipate if you can. Don’t take a fearful toddler through the grocery store display of cackling witches; if you’re not sure if the corn maze is a scary one, ask first. Err on the conservative side when it comes to books and movies if you have a fearful child (and vet first when you can).
- For little ones, distract and avoid. Once younger toddlers are afraid, I think it’s best to remove them from the situation. I’m a big fan of the “Oh hey LOOK! A smiling kitty cat and some lollipops! Let’s go over here away from that dancing skeleton.” At this age kids are easily spooked but, thankfully, also easily distracted.
- For older kids, talk it through. Preschoolers tend to be more rational and may actually benefit from talking through what’s scaring them. You can offer to show them the person behind the mask, or figure out what’s making the vampire’s eyes light up. You can also talk about what’s real and what isn’t (bats are really cool creatures, for example, but they don’t really fly around biting people; skeletons are the bones inside our bodies, but they don’t move around on their own) and brainstorm together why some people enjoy being scared at Halloween time, while others don’t.
- Empathize, don’t trivialize. This is scary stuff, whether you’re 2 or 8. Be the one they come to when they’re scared. No matter how old they are.
Minding Their Manners
We’ve all heard the complaints and internet grumbling about kids grabbing more than their share of candy and taking off without a “thank you.” But I think it’s important to remember than manners come with consistent practice, and even normally polite kids can get excited or nervous and forget their pleasantries on Halloween.
I think the keys to Halloween manners are setting clear expectations, giving kids time to learn and practice, and not expecting perfection.
Nothing spikes my aggravated-mama meter like power struggles with my kids about eating treats. I think it’s because I want to be laid back about enjoying sweets as a part of life and celebrations, but my kids are young and if left to their own devices would eat themselves into a literal sugar-coma. And finding the happy middle place is hard.
The best advice I have about managing candy intake and minimizing the arguing over how much is too much is to know your plan going in, inform your troops in advance, and be consistent.
We usually let the kids eat as much as they want on Halloween day and night. I try to fill them up with nutritious foods throughout the day, and then just let ’em go at it until they crash at bedtime. The day after Halloween we usually put some kind of system in place to limit how much they eat. It might be one piece after lunch and three after dinner, or maybe it’s five pieces total that they can eat whenever they want throughout the day; no matter what the system is, it always works best when I’m consistent about enforcing it. I also keep the candy out of sight and in my possession (not theirs) so that it’s not a constant source of debate.
On Strangers & Safety
Remember when we were kids and our parents had to inspect our loot for needles and signs of tampering? Even at the time I remember thinking that seemed highly unlikely and a little paranoid. While it’s good to be aware of all kinds of “stranger danger,” I choose to focus most of our safety discussions around situations we’re more likely to encounter.
Since Halloween presents some serious mixed messages (“NEVER take candy from strangers. Except oh wait DEFINITELY DO take candy from strangers if it’s the last day of October.”), it’s a great time to revisit these topics with your kids. Rather than wait until they’re chomping at the bit to start knocking on doors, I usually try sprinkling the conversations over the days leading up to Halloween. We talk through things like what to do if we got separated while trick-or-treating, how to handle being invited inside a house, what kind of information is okay to share with people you’re meeting for the first time, and we always make sure the kids know our address and cell phone numbers.
I’m sure conversations about strangers and safety differ for families with older, more independent kids – if you have tweens or teens, I’d love to hear how you talk to your kids about Halloween safety.