How Halloween Works

stock photo of child trick or treating

Fifty years ago, my husband’s parents moved to the United States and luckily, a co-worker took Jim aside and explained to him what Halloween was, and how trick or treating works. I had neighbors a few years back who weren’t so lucky, and were very confused when my costumed family showed up on their doorstep calling out Trick or Treat! I now work with many families who are newly immigrated to the U.S. so I thought I’d write a primer on how Trick or Treating works, from choosing a costume to how to trick or treat, where to trick or treat (neighborhood, malls, trunk or treat events or office parties), how to welcome trick or treaters at your house, safety issues, and what to do with all that candy! I also include a few recommendations for movies, books, and songs about Halloween.

Choosing a Halloween Costume

If you’ll be trick or treating outside, think ahead about practical things about what the weather will be (do they need to fit a coat under the costume, or wear something that can get wet) and how to ensure your child will be visible to drivers (if your child chooses an all black costume, consider choosing a white treat bag or other accessory that’s visible in the dark). Check out my other post for lots more thoughts on choosing a costume.

Don’t forget a treat bag or container of some sort for collecting candy in. Make sure it’s easy for your kid to carry, easy for them to open up to put candy in, and not easy for them to spill all the candy out of! (Tip: Don’t choose a giant bag. Choose a smaller container, so it’s easy to say “Oh, it looks like your bag is full. It’s time to go home.” There’s only so much candy you want to collect!)

How to trick or treat:

Look for houses that have their porch lights on – that’s the signal that they welcome trick or treaters. Send the children up to the porch (you hover nearby). They ring the doorbell or knock. (If no one answers, move on. But usually they will.) When the host opens the door, the kids say “Trick or Treat!!” Sometimes the host holds out a bowl of candy – kids can reach in and take candy. (This is a good chance for kids to practice their best manners – make sure they know to take just one!!) Sometimes the host holds out a few pieces of candy – the kids hold their treat bags up for the host to put the candy into. Teach your child to always say “Thank you” and “Happy Halloween.”

Sometimes the host will engage them in a lot more conversation like “Oh, I like your costume? What are you dressed up as?” Encourage your child to participate, or move nearer to help them answer. This is a good time for them to practice social skills. On a very rare occasion, when your child says “trick or treat”, the host will say “trick.” Tell your child they could cross their eyes, roll their tongue, balance on one foot or something else.

People ask “What time is trick or treating?” There’s not usually any set time, just the general trend for an area. In the Seattle area, we find that our earliest kids come by at 5:30, and the latest are around 8:30. Aim for the middle of that window, and you’ll be fine. Make sure your kid eats a good dinner before you start! Note: toddlers may only be up to going to a handful of stops before they’re done. The older kids are, the longer they last.

Choosing Where to Trick or Treat

Neighborhood?

My favorite option is to trick or treat in a neighborhood. It’s a fun opportunity to take your child for a walk around the neighborhood after dark, and a rare chance in modern society to at least briefly meet lots of your neighbors.

Which neighborhood to chooseI think it’s lovely when you can do your own neighborhood. When I was a kid, we knew the families with kids, but this was one of our few opportunities to interact with the other families in the neighborhood. In our current neighborhood, we know some families well (the ones with kids), some families a little (the ones who come to the HOA meetings), and there’s a few families that our only interaction with them has been on Halloween nights. I think when neighbors can recognize each other and have some connection to each other, no matter how small, it makes the neighborhood friendlier and safer for all, as we all look out for each other a little bit more.

But, many people live in neighborhoods that are unsafe, or neighborhoods like my in-laws where over the past several years, fewer and fewer houses had their porch lights on each year, so more kids chose to go elsewhere, so fewer kids came, and my in-laws are about to give up on buying candy and turning their porch light on.

If you’re wondering whether your neighborhood will be busy on Halloween night, or if there is somewhere better to go, ask neighbors, ask parents at the playground, or ask on Nextdoor or your neighborhood Facebook group. As a general rule, upper middle class neighborhoods where young families live may be best – lower income areas or areas with older homes are more likely to have retired folks or younger adults who are at work. (Not to say there can’t be great neighborhoods in all demographics!)

For apartment dwellers – Some apartment communities actively encourage trick or treating (you’ll see signs up in the elevators or by the mailboxes, notices in the newsletter, and so on). Some don’t. Some apartment dwellers host trick or treaters even if the apartment doesn’t specifically encourage it, but some don’t participate even when the community does. Keep your ear out for what it seems to be where you live – on Halloween night, there may be a system like: if there are decorations or a sign you can trick or treat there. (Learn more about apartment Halloweens.)

Candy in a bowlSome people who aren’t able to be home for Halloween leave out a bowl of candy. I generally don’t have my kid take any, just because for me, the whole point of Halloween is human interaction, not more candy.

The Mall (or downtown business district)

Lots of malls host a trick or treating event (at the bottom of this post, I list details for my local malls on the Eastside of Seattle). The events may also include live music, clowns, games, face painting, costume contests, or other activities.

In these, you go store to store (participating stores are typically marked in some way like a balloon at the door), and ask for candy.

I’ve found that at some stores, you get a great reception where you do the whole trick or treat routine and the clerk chats about the costume and so on. At other stores, especially the busy ones, the poor harried clerks just kind of point at the candy dish and grunt “take one” and go back to work.

The advantages to a mall event are that the weather doesn’t matter, they’re well-lit, and can feel a lot safer and more predictable than a neighborhood. The disadvantage is that it can feel a little impersonal and consumerist – you’ll go home with a lot of candy, but not much sense of connection.

Trunk or Treat

Some churches or schools sponsor “trunk or treat” events which are often open to the general public. These are “Halloween tailgating parties” where parents or community members park their cars in a parking lot and decorate their backs of their cars, and the kids walk around to the cars to trick or treat. At some events, kids do an activity, like a carnival game, to earn their candy.

I honestly have never been to one, but it sounds like kind of halfway between the other two options – it’s outdoors and has more personal interactions like the neighborhood, but it may feel safer or more contained, like the mall. Since it’s a short walk between cars, it may be easier with little ones than a neighborhood. Also, parents / community members get a chance to socialize instead of being at home alone waiting for trick or treaters to appear. Events may have rules which ban overly scary or grotesque decor which might frighten kids. Here’s an article about how to organize a trunk or treat event. And Pinterest has hundreds of ideas for how to decorate a car for an event.

Office Parties

Some companies host trick or treating in their offices, where the kids go around to desks or offices. This could be a nice chance for your child to meet your co-workers or a partner’s co-workers and see the workplace. Like mall events, I find that some people are excited to greet the kids, and it’s a nice chance to connect. Some are just trying to finish work before a deadline and just kind of wave at the candy bowl and continue working.

Nursing Homes

Some elder care facilities host Halloween events. It’s a nice chance for your child to experience being around older people in a positive way, and can brighten their day.

Welcoming Trick or Treaters at Your Home

If you live in a neighborhood where there’s lots of trick or treating, then when children are younger, it may be easier to stay home and let the fun come to you. Many people without children may also opt to stay home on Halloween and welcome trick or treaters. Or leave one family member home while the rest go out.

Getting the Goods: Buy candy that you like, in case you have leftovers. Only give away items that are individually wrapped. This is not the time to make your own cookies to share. It can be hard to know how much to get – ask your neighbors what typical traffic is in your neighborhood, or ask on Nextdoor or your neighborhood Facebook group. My in-laws buy 6 full size bars and often don’t give those away. We give out about 50 – 70 items. Other neighborhoods I’ve heard may do 200! Find tips below on allergen friendly and eco friendly options for treats.

On Halloween night: Leave your porch light on – that tells people they’re welcome to come ring your doorbell. Adding a few decorations is even more welcoming. Some families play Halloween themed music too. Or bake pumpkin spice cookies – not to give away, but to make the whole neighborhood smell good! Put your pets away – you don’t want to risk them running out the front door, or frightening a child. (If you’re a dog lover with a sweet dog, it can be hard to remember that many children have no experience with dogs or might have had a frightening encounter in the past.) If you run out of candy, turn off your porch light.

For info on what to expect when you open the door, see how to trick or treat above.

Choosing Low Allergen or Non-Food Treats

Consider offering a couple different kinds of candy. For example, if you’re a huge fan of a candy with nuts, offer that, but also offer a nut-free option. Or if you offer milk chocolate, offer a dairy-free option. Or consider a non-food option, since in the United States, 1 in 13 children has a food allergy, some of which are life-threatening. Many of these children participate in the fun of trick or treating, then go home and sort through their candy with their parents for the few pieces that they can eat.
Food Allergy Resource and Education sponsors the Teal Pumpkin project. It raises awareness of food allergies and promotes inclusion of all trick or treaters. It offers an alternative for kids with food allergies and others for whom candy is not an option. To participate, you provide non-food treats, and place a teal pumpkin at your house to signal your participation and to raise awareness. (If you also offer candy, make sure the non-food treats are in a separate bowl to avoid cross-contamination.)

They offer several ideas for non-food treats, as does the Green Halloween site. You can get glow sticks or stickers or such at your local dollar store – or check out your local thrift store for pre-used items to cut down on environmental impact. We gave away Glow In The Dark Balls for Star Wars year, Dinosaur Toys when my son was a triceratops,  jungle Animal Stickers (including tigers) for Calvin & Hobbes theme, and Pokemon Toys when he was Pikachu. The cost has ranged from about 10 cents to 30 cents an item.

Green Halloween

All of this individually wrapped candy or all those non-food consumer goods have a negative impact on the environment. It’s also a really consumerist holiday that’s all about “getting more stuff.”

You can make your Halloween greener by: buying costumes from second-hand stores or participating in costume swaps, re-purposing clothes or dress-up supplies you already own by adding make-up or a few small accessories, using lead-free face paint instead of masks, choosing decorations you can re-use every year rather than buying new, making decorations from recyclable items, composting your pumpkins, selecting treats that are free trade or organic (Green Halloween has recommendations), giving seashells or polished rocks or seeds to plant, or hosting a party to encourage people not to participate in trick or treating.

Hot Beverages

Our family tradition is a little unusual… years ago, we went trick or treating on a very cold night in Snoqualmie, and a family was giving out hot cider to the parents and it was lovely! Years later, we moved to a neighborhood with trick or treaters, to a house with a front porch, and we started our tradition of sitting on the front porch handing out hot chocolate and hot cider to all the parents who come by. (And non-food treats to kids – we’re a teal pumpkin house.) Our decor theme each year is determined by what our son decided to be for Halloween that year.

Because this is not really a common Halloween tradition, people are often surprised when we offer them a drink, but then we end up having some great conversations with them and they almost always take us up on the offer.

I hear rumor that some parents hand out alcoholic beverages to other parents. We don’t, because I’m not into anything involving potential legal liability.

Leaving out a bowl of candy

Some people feel bad about being away from home on Halloween, so will leave out a bowl of candy so no one is disappointed. This can work out very well – some will report that some candy was taken, or will say that their security cameras recorded lots of sweet little kids coming up and taking one candy each. Some report that not only was all their candy taken by one person – the person took the bowl too. 😦

Handling Scary Decor and Costumes

Your child may see costumes or decorations that frighten them. There is a trend toward gory, macabre costumes and decorations, like bloody severed hands and rotting corpses.

Some people argue for the scares:

“It’s about the other side, the dark side, the side of life we as parents would like to pretend doesn’t exist—but it does. It’s about going out into the night and confronting your fears, a little more each year. And what’s better than facing your fears and finding out they’re not as scary as you imagined? It’s like going on a roller coaster. First time: terrifying. Subsequent times: totally fun.”  (Source)

But if you’re the one who has to manage your child’s fears in the moment, or their nightmares and anxieties for the next few weeks, you may not feel so enthusiastic about this trend. Some ways to manage this:

  • before Halloween talk about decorations – maybe even go look at them in stores so your child can see that the skeleton is lifeless plastic. Explain that people will dress up in costumes and show pictures of lots of friendly costumes and a couple scary ones, but emphasize that it’s always just another kid underneath the mask.
  • you and your child could preview the neighborhood you plan to trick or treat in the daytime – seeing the decorations in the light of day can make them less frightening
  • teach your child that if there’s decorations that make them uncomfortable, they can skip that house – we use the phrase “it’s OK to say no when your friends say go”
  • if you and your child are welcoming trick or treaters at your own door, you may want to peek out at the costume first to see whether it’s one that will concern your child before calling the child over to see

Safety

You’re out after dark in neighborhoods that may not typically have many pedestrians, so practice really good pedestrian safety. If anything about a neighborhood or a particular house feels wrong to you, trust your instincts and skip it. Explain to your child why you are doing that – it’s good for them to learn to trust their instincts too. (But please try not to let prejudice enter in here… nothing like “we won’t go to that house because I don’t trust people of that race / religion / orientation…”)

Some parents of upper elementary kids will drive slowly along in the car while the kids trick or treat, keeping an eye on them.

Pre-teens.  If you have a tween who wants to trick or treat with friends without you tagging along: Make sure they have a phone with them, know not to enter any building, and know to leave immediately if they are uncomfortable. (You can do an update to the “Tricky People” conversations you had when they were little.) Also have them do regularly scheduled check-ins. If they’re in your neighborhood, ask them to do one block, then stop by to say hi, then another block, etc. If they’re in another neighborhood, you can hang out in your car or at a public place nearby where they can check in from time to time.

Teenagers – How Old is too Old to Trick or Treat?

I personally lean toward following the memes that say teenagers are just trying to be kids for a little while longer, and it’s better for them to be trick or treating than up to other mischief on Halloween. (Like attending a kegger….)

And yes, they might not be wearing a costume, but that’s because the group of friends may have decided at the last minute to do this, and didn’t want to admit to each other that they all still wanted to do this.

When teenagers do come to my door, I treat them as I would anyone. But if they forget to say trick or treat or say thank you, I smilingly remind them to do so the next time.

When I had a teenager who still wanted to trick or treat, I also had a toddler. So, my daughter and her friends took my little guy out. Consider suggesting to your teen that they offer babysitting / Trick or Treating Buddy services to a family you know with younger kids. They can dress up too.

What to do with all that candy

Set up rules and expectations in advanceWhatever the rules will be, tell your child BEFORE the candy is in their hands!!! You don’t want your memories of the evening to be about the whining and yelling that happened when you tried to make up rules in the moment.

Inspect before eating. Many parents have a rule: Don’t eat candy while trick or treating – wait till we get home and can check it out in the light. I personally don’t worry much about things like poisoning or razors in the candy – those things have happened but are really incredibly rare. But I still like to look at what we’re eating first.

Sort the candySorting is a key skill in math and science. Kids can learn a lot by counting, sorting by size, sorting by chocolate / non-chocolate, sorting by favorite to least favorite, comparing who collected the most, and so on.

Do more science! There’s lots of great experiments with candy. Start here, then use google or Pinterest to search for more ideas.

Do more math! There’s lots of math activities with candy. (The more you have, the more you can count. Start here, then use google or Pinterest to search for more ideas.

Trade the candyWe’ve had complicated family exchanges in our family sometimes: “I’ll give you three Milky Ways for that Twizzlers.”

Share the candy.  Encourage kids to share candy with other people who didn’t go trick or treating: “Dad gets all the Reeses’ cups.” “Grandpa really loves butterscotch candies.”

Send candy care packages to troops. Learn how at https://www.operationgratitude.com/express-your-thanks/halloween-candy/ There’s additional donation options here.

Participate in a candy buyback. These may be sponsored by a local dentist office or other organization. They may participate in the www.halloweencandybuyback.com/ program, which supports veterans programs.

Buy it back yourself. Some parents buy the kids’ candy either with money or a promised toy.

Let them eat as much as they want. Some people recommend this. Some, like dietitian Emily Fonnesbeck, say

“trying to control a kid’s candy intake [on Halloween] can backfire, and limits their opportunity to learn about making good food choices for themselves, even when they’ve got a pillowcase full of candy… “If we make candy a big deal, it will be a big deal,” she says. “If we talk about it like any other food, it’s more likely that kids will be able to self-regulate their food choices to include a wide variety of foods instead of feeling preoccupied, worried or shameful for food choices.”

Some parents say they’ve had a time where they let a kid totally gorge on candy till they threw up, figuring they’d “learn a lesson” that way. Personally, my kid learned that lesson on accident once (on an Easter when she was 23 months old, we thought we were supervising her well… till she started vomiting all over my friend’s house, and we could tell that somehow she’d gotten a hold of and eaten LOTS of chocolate). I don’t want to repeat that experience! Here’s our solution:

Eat it. But follow portion rulesIn our family, we tend to have an “all things in moderation” attitude. We don’t ban much of anything. (Read here about a study where kids got a little obsessed with the crackers that they had been temporarily banned from eating, and other effects of denying food to kids.)

One place that plays out is in our “two sweets a day” rule, where the kids get sweet credits. A credit equals one cookie, or a piece of cake, or a piece of candy (like a fun size piece… a whole candy bar would be many credits, with M&M’s there’s about 5 candies per credit). They can spend their credits at any time during the day, as long as they have eaten some real food first (i.e. no candy before breakfast). But once the credits are used, they’re gone… so “if you know grandpa will offer to take you to ice cream tonight, be sure to save a credit for that”. For Halloween, we allow them to eat five candies that day, and the rest gets put away for future use. (And each October 30, I throw away all the old candy leftover from Halloween, Christmas, Easter and summer parades since they never remember to eat it all.)

Halloween Movies, Books, Songs

For some more Halloween fun, in the weeks leading up to the big day:

Check out these posts for Scary (but not too scary) Halloween movies – categorized by age level, and How to Choose a Scary Movie for your Kid. It includes these tips and more:

“Kids under 7 will believe what they see. When picking media, nothing should be more startling than “Boo!” Kids over 5 may like haunted houses, mysteries, and things popping out everywhere, but stick to animation, which helps them realize that it’s fantasy. Be careful with monsters, skeletons, aliens, and zombies.”

Here are recommendations for Halloween Books that are only slightly scary and Best Halloween Books for Kids.

For fun songs, rhymes and crafts for toddlers and preschoolers, check out my Fall Themed Fun for Toddlers. For thousands more craft ideas, just check out Pinterest.

Trick or Treat 2018 – Mall Options on Seattle’s Eastside

Here’s a list of public places that are offering trick or treating on Halloween – Oct. 31:

  • Bellevue Square, 5 – 7 pm. Trick or treat, photobooth, clowns, Mad Science, live music.
  • Crossroads 4 – 6 pm, trick or treat at outside stores, not inside the mall. No masks. Live music 6 – 7:30.
  • Factoria 4:30 – 6:30 pm Trick or treat and games.
  • Kirkland Downtown – Trick or treat at downtown merchants. Typically 3 – 6 pm, but 2018 details not posted as of 10/12.
  • Redmond Town Center, 4 – 7 pm. Trick or treat, face painting, and jumping in the Springfree trampoline, face painting and costume contest.

Seattle area folks, also check out these ParentMap articles on Best Pumpkin Patches in King and Snohomish Counties, and Scary (and Unscary) Haunted House Attractions

Learn about more local Seattle area activities for families, year-round.

Learn about the importance of family rituals.

Photo at top of page from: Good Free Photos.

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