Saturday, October 31, 2009

What Should Really Scare Us This Halloween?

About 94% of kids will be out trick or treating tonight. Most of them, particularly the little ones, will be with a parent or other adult. Most of them will be told not to eat their candy until they get home, where an adult will look it over or at least tell them not to eat anything that looks suspicious. We, as a society, believe Halloween to be fun but also risky, and we take numerous precautions to avoid those risks.

But what are those risks? Let's start with the treats. 40 years ago, it wasn't uncommon for people to make popcorn balls or give out apples on Halloween. Over time, we came to understand that eating unwrapped food was dangerous, because the distributor might lace it with poison, put a needle or a razor blade in it, or otherwise try to hurt the kids coming by for treats. Now, I know of no one who would let their child eat an apple from their treat bag. So what do you imagine is the average number of treat tampering cases per year in this country? Is it more or less than it used to be? How often does someone tamper with candy and then distribute it on Halloween?

Never. According to research, there has never, ever been a case of someone poisoning or lacing or putting something in the treats they give out to children. There have been cases of poisoned candy, to be sure, but they have mostly turned out to be an adult's attempt to harm a specific child and blame it on a stranger. Back in the '70s, there were some highly publicized cases. One turned out to be a parent poisoning his own child for life insurance money, and another that was blamed on heroine in candy was actually a child getting a hold of a relative's stash. The candy kids get from the neighbors is safe.

The next thing we think we know about risks on Halloween is that you should go with an adult. Strangers are dangerous, and if you shouldn't talk to strangers then you shouldn't talk to strangers, period. What might surprise you, however, is that there is no increase in sex crimes against children on Halloween, either. All sorts of law enforcement efforts go into making sure that registered sex offenders don't answer their doorbells for the little ghosts and goblins, but it really doesn't make a difference. Children are at risk from predators every day, and Halloween is no exception, but it is not the bonanza for pedophiles we think it is.

So what really is the biggest risk to kids on Halloween? What makes it more risky than the day before or the day after for our kids? You probably can figure it out if you think about it. Halloween is the one time all year when children are walking around in the dark. The number of children who are killed being hit by a car on Halloween is more than double the number for any typical night, simply because there are more children out there. In fact, if you account for the massive increase of children walking outside between 4 and 10 PM on Halloween night, the rate of childhood pedestrian death per pedestrian may actually be lower. Oh, and when I say "doubled," it goes from one child per night to 2.2 on Halloween -- in the whole country.

Despite all of this, we all pay a lot of attention to safety on Halloween. I think that has nothing whatsoever to do with the odds of something happening to our kids. It has to do with our image of ourselves as protectors of them. We see ourselves as being able to keep our children safe, and we are pretty good at that. On Halloween, we afford them a teeny bit of independence. We let them ring doorbells they would never ring any other day, and talk to people they would never talk to. We loosen the apron strings just a little bit, and compensate by creating a lot of rules and procedures to make sure they're still OK when we do.

To be sure, there's nothing wrong with being careful on Halloween. There's no harm in trying to keep our little ones safe, and avoiding unnecessary dangers. It just probably would make the evening a little more fun for the whole family if we all kept in mind that the biggest chance we take with our kids on Halloween probably has more to do with tooth decay and childhood obesity than with the evening itself.

Thanks to Quarterbacker Alan over at Poor Mojo Newswire for the article about candy tampering.


Colleen said...

Scariest thing for me on Halloween is driving the car! I see all those kids running around, and they can be hard to I drive slower than usual. It's entirely possible that most people notice this, and drive more carefully, which might explain the lower-death per child walking hour rate. IF that is true, rather than just my conjecture, then we ARE keeping kids safer by making them wear lights and florescent strips, and have their costumes be not too long, so they don't trip in front of cars, etc.

I've always thought that the biggest danger for kids on Halloween was being hit by cars or knocking over a lit pumpkin. And those are risks that we, as parents and as a society, can actually lower.

I'm very careful about sending out new drivers at dusk on Halloween....

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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