clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

You’re never too old for trick-or-treating

Despite what semi-viral municipal laws might imply.

A person in a rabbit costume standing on a suburban porch with pumpkins. Getty Images
Alanna Okun is a senior editor at Vox, primarily working on Even Better. Before Vox, she was a senior editor at Racked and BuzzFeed.

Halloween is a flashpoint for many of our deeply held and most arbitrary social fears. For a while, we all worried about whether unscrupulous homeowners were handing out poisonous, razor blade-filled candy (a myth that’s been roundly debunked); more recently that morphed into terror over pot-laced edibles slipped into trick-or-treaters’ bags (relax, nobody likes your kid enough to waste that kind of money on them). Halloween combines costumes, candy, strangers, and darkness — it’s practically a powder keg of worry.

A perennial source of that fretting? The question of how old is too old to run around in said darkness asking for said candy. It’s a somewhat lopsided debate — there are currently far more “How Old Is Too Old to Trick-Or-Treat?” articles that land vaguely on the side of allowing people to just do what they feel is best, and far fewer fiery takes from folks who think teens should be banned from Halloween streets. (Safety concerns, specifically bullying and vandalism, are invoked, without much citation, as the counterpoint.)

But it does raise questions about why these sorts of arguments are so tempting and why we can’t just let this handful of perpetual topics die. Case in point: for two years in a row, a city in Virginia has received national attention for a purported rule on its books barring teenagers from trick-or-treating, listing fines or even jail time for failure to comply.

This, too, has been thoroughly defanged: In its 49 years of existence, the ordinance has never actually been enforced. (And even if it were, the age limit was increased from 12 to 14 last year with the threat of jail time eliminated.) The city of Chesapeake posted a somewhat exasperated note on its Facebook page to this effect on October 1, but as of publication, people were still busily commenting to express their agreement or displeasure with the motion.

That’s because this topic is irresistible! As one commenter replied, “It was 10 when I was a kid. But those were the days of parental supervision and common sense, neither of which are in much abundance these days. We stopped handing out candy when those 12+ y/o ‘kids’, who were bigger than I, pushed past the little ones to get candy, and forgot their manners i.e. saying ‘Thank you!’”

Wrote another, “Why is there an age limit on Halloween anyways, I’d rather my kids not grow up so fast and enjoy this holiday without the bs of adults ruining all the fun for them. Give me a break.”

This debate, if we can call it that, is not really about the current youth of America; it’s so grown-ups can reminisce about being allowed to run barefoot down Rusty Can Lane at 11:30 on a school night, pillowcases strained to bursting with Werther’s Originals, while others recount how by age 7 ½ they were giving noogies to the losers who dared devote a couple of hours to the pursuit of sugar.

(Of course, it is still about the current youth of America, inasmuch as limiting who gets to come to your house after dark and politely request a treat reveals the racist and classist underpinnings of our nation.)

Still, when we talk about What The Kids Are Doing, we’re really talking about ourselves. For my part, I trick-or-treated well into my late teens; I must have been at least 16 before I stopped for good. I loved making my own costumes and amassing an unholy amount of candy and counting it all up at the end of the night. Even once I started working and could have used the money to buy my own candy whenever I wanted, that wasn’t the point; my Halloween stash felt differently earned, this more primal hunting-gathering impulse momentarily sated.

I miss Halloween now, the sharp focus of that one designated night, when the air smelled electric and mildewy-but-in-a-good-way and we’d all try to negotiate whether we could forgo jackets in favor of keeping our costumes visible. I miss trading miniature KitKats and Snickers with my little sister. I’m happy I was old enough when I stopped that I can still remember it now.

Maybe some of my neighbors judged me toward the end of my trick-or-treating tenure — maybe you are judging me now — and that’s fine. I was old enough to weigh the balance and to conclude that I’d trade a couple of disapproving stares for a pile of Reese’s Pumpkins.

That’s what these generational tut-tuttings are almost always about; when we try to legislate the behavior of the current class of youngs, we’re often working out our own feelings about what our earlier days were like — and the fact that we’re not living them anymore. We love to tell teens what to do, and also to talk about what we were and weren’t allowed to do when we were their age.

Let’s assume that today’s teens are equally cognizant of what they’re doing as we were, those glorious nerdy geniuses who might one day save us all (we’ve certainly done enough to them), and also count the blessing that any kid who’s spending their evening going door to door for treats isn’t off doing something worse. As Christine Burke wrote over at Scary Mommy, “Folks, we need to lay off teens and let them explore safe ways to have fun. And we can start by not judging the group of teens that shows up to your door, laughing and joking and having a good time.”

If you must make laws about Halloween, here are some suggestions:

  • People can trick-or-treat at any age, but in order to receive candy you do have to wear some kind of costume, even if it’s one of those “funny” no-effort ones where you just wear a fanny pack and call yourself a tourist or something. Ugh, fine.
  • Do not pass out multi-level marketing-related materials; they are worse than receiving apples or even toothbrushes, a real thing that once happened to me.
  • Racist costumes are felonies, full stop. Okay, that’s all!

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.