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Should I let my kids trick or treat?

A more in depth article by Geoff Newiss, to coincide with Halloween and the publication by the BBC of the World Hacks Podcast

Given I run the UK charity Action Against Abduction you would think my answer on trick or treating would be a pretty straight forward ‘no way!’.

We’ve all heard of ‘stranger danger’ right? Why would we think it’s a good idea to send our children out knocking on stranger’s doors in an attempt to take sweets from them?

But actually it’s not that straight forward. For a start, telling children about ‘stranger danger’ is a poor way of keeping them safe, and a good way of frightening them. We know that most strangers will not harm children. Conversely, many people who do look to abuse children are people who are actually known to them.

Even if all abusers were strangers the traditional ‘don’t talk to/go with/or take things from strangers’ message ignores the fact that many children only think the rule applies to mean and nasty-looking people. If you’re nice, preferably a woman, with a gentle and persuasive lure then most children’s strangeometres are going to misfire.

The other big problem with ‘stranger danger’ is it plays into the sense that behind every door and lamppost lurks a predator. It creates fear, a default that we should assume the worst until we know better.

So it’s no surprise when you check out the online chat platforms that you hear parents voice concern over the potential for children sent trick or treating to run into some seriously dangerous people.

And, of course, they’re right. They might. But we should acknowledge that statistically speakingthey probably won’t.

And if children are in a group – better still with a parent or two – then the risk of such an encounter proving harmful starts to look remote.

Exposing our children to risk has become a real source of debate and soul-searching in recent years. ‘Stranger danger’ belongs to the era when risk was something that parents should shield their children from. It’s the school of thought that says ‘if just one stranger might be dangerous then avoid them all’.

But in reality, what good does this really do for our children? How does this practically help them to distinguish a benign encounter with an adult they don’t know (hands up if your child has ever engaged in conversation with a dog-walker) from one which they might need to get away from?

Children learn from experience, practice and from gaining confidence in their own abilities. We don’t teach children road safety by simply telling them to avoid all roads and cars. We appreciate that we need to give them some basic road-crossing strategies and the chance to practice their skills. It’s about children learning to identify and respond to risk – rather than simply avoiding it.

If you’re having trouble coming to terms with your child’s request to go trick or treating as part of a group of other children and adults, imagine if they were asking you if they could go without adult supervision?

Yet 30 or 40 years ago many of those children that did go trick or treating (and granted it probably wasn’t quite the craze that it is now) would have done so with just a sibling or other school friend.

It was the era when parents would happily let their – even young – children out to play, run errands, visit friends and family without feeling the need to go along with them. Since then children’s independent mobility has plummeted and with it has come a rise in obesity, and concern that children are not developing important social and practical skills.

OK, you might not select the 31st October as the date to start on a new path towards increasing your child’s independence. But as parents our abilities to ‘let go’ and to give our kids the tools and opportunities to manage – rather than avoid – risk, are going to play a major role in their development.

So, what do I really think? Trick or treating: good or bad?

I think the honest answer is it’s a personal choice. If it’s something you and your kids enjoy, an occasion when you get to say hello to the neighbours and even, dare I say it, some strangers – then why not?

If you simply don’t like it – too many chocolates, it’s a form of begging etc. etc. – then I’m afraid you’re into the realm of how much you’re prepared to stand firm when confronted with cries of “that’s not fair!”.

Whatever you decide, have a happy All Hallows’ Eve: that strange day in the year when we make a celebration of being scared. Let’s just try and keep the other 364 days for giving children confidence, self-belief and a positive sense of the world they inhabit.

Geoff Newiss is a Director of the UK charity Action Against Abduction, which recently launched the Clever Never Goes programme to replace ‘stranger danger’.

Thank you for reading this. Please do sign up to Clever Never Goes if it is appropriate for you as a parent, teacher or professional. Ask your school whether they would be interested.