Trick or Treating: How Old is Too Old? (And the Problem with that Question)

It’s getting to be that time of year again; leaves are turning colors, decorations are on the shelves, and kids are thinking about upcoming costumes and candy. Halloween is a favorite holiday for many children (and adults) and it’s not hard to see why. Who wouldn’t like an excuse to go all-out with theatrics, dress-up, and then get free sweets on top of that? However, for many parents and guardians out there, this year might be the year you realize that your little one isn’t so ‘little’ anymore. So, when is it the right time to hang up the witch-hat and pumpkin basket? 


“Aren’t you a bit old to be trick or treating?”

Parents are primed from pregnancy to make sure their child is meeting all of the right milestones and developmental stages in life. If they don’t get to these stages, it is easy to worry that something may be amiss in the child’s development, or that you’re not doing something correctly as a parent. However, unlike your child’s first steps and losing all their teeth, trick or treating is an activity meant for one key thing that a child (or adult) enjoys at any developmental stage—having a good time!

It’s easy to think of Halloween as a holiday meant mostly for kids. It involves candy, costumes, scary things, and being silly in general—something that adults have often ‘given up’ as unacceptable interests or behaviors for someone who is meant to ‘act their age’. Humans are beings significantly led and restricted by social inhibitions, and for older children as they grow. The expectation of trick or treating as an activity limited for ‘little kids’ typically leads to them making their own decision to stop collecting candy and move towards Halloween activities geared towards teens (haunted houses, scary bale rides, and horror movies). 

Those who choose to continue trick or treating after many of their similarly-aged peers have stopped will likely experience some feelings of isolation and a push to give up the activity—even if they themselves may not want to. Trick or treating itself is a largely social activity; going to peoples’ homes, meeting up with friends, comparing candy hauls, and planning costumes all involve significant amounts of speaking and interacting with family, friends, and even complete strangers! If a child finds themselves trying to go it alone, having a fun time with trick or treating can be especially difficult. 

Even well-meant questions from adults such as, “Are we trick or treating this year?”, “Will you be helping hand out candy?”, “Would you take your little sister/brother trick or treating?”, or “Do we need to buy you a costume?” can all be signs to a child that they’re getting to an age where trick or treating is something that’s no longer expected of them. Try to avoid these questions when at all possible, and let your child be the one to say they want to stop trick or treating when they feel ready. 

If your family is one that celebrates Halloween with trick or treating, assume the child will be continuing to do so until they ask you to stop—there’s no real reason to push them towards stopping unless they want to; and the last thing you may want as a parent or guardian is for your child to grow up even faster than they already are. Don’t rush the moments, and enjoy their excitement with trick or treating and pictures of them in costumes as long as you can—you won’t regret it. 


“Oh, are they, you know, ‘special needs’?”

Unfortunately, the mindset that trick or treating is strictly for kids is also limiting for people who may not perceive social pressure and experiences to the same degree or in the same way as others. Individuals who are neurodivergent and maintain an interest in trick or treating throughout their development face significant discrimination and privacy violations when trying to participate—despite there being no real need for these restrictions. 

It’s more common for children who are neurodivergent to get a ‘free pass’ as older children and young teens, but in order to receive candy and participate, it means having to disclose their conditions to complete strangers. If they are an adult, even with disclosure they may get the door closed on them or be unable to participate without scrutiny. This is especially difficult when people in general want to be treated the same as everyone else, but are still held to standards that don’t apply to each person indiscriminately. 

In more recent years, people have become more aware and accommodating to differing needs for those around us. For example, it’s commonplace for there to be gluten-free or toy options for trick or treaters with different limitations. One other commonplace development is the use of ‘blue buckets’ as a method of identifying trick or treaters who may ‘have a reason’ to appear older than expected, make limited eye-contact, not say ‘trick or treat’, or behave differently in general1

On the face, this can appear as a great accommodation and allow for smooth trick or treating to carry on. However, I would challenge you to ask who the accommodation of the blue bucket is really for? Is there a reason if an adult in a costume or a child older than expected comes to your door to trick or treat, that you shouldn’t give them a piece of candy? Will you withhold sweets from a child who doesn’t look you in the eye, acts a bit differently, or maybe doesn’t say the actual words ‘trick or treat’? 

When asked that directly, the response may be, “no, of course not!”. However, consider if you actually have. If a child without a blue bucket doesn’t ask ‘trick or treat’, there’s the common assumption that they’re ‘just shy’ and efforts are made to tease or goad them into saying it. Any adult in a costume is usually assumed to be a parent until proven otherwise. Older children tend to be given less candy than younger children. Despite being a pretty ‘giving’ holiday, in reality we actually do put a lot of judgement and discretion into how we choose to dole out our candy without ever intending to be discriminatory or harmful.

The blue bucket movement is not an accommodation for those with ‘special needs’, but is actually a passport to get past whatever rules we as candy-givers may have—subconsciously or otherwise. Requiring a person of any age to disclose a developmental disability or health condition to a stranger in order to have fun and participate in a holiday is actually a pretty significant violation of that person’s privacy2

We would not expect a child with a physical disability to have ribbons on a chair or other assistive devices for us to know to treat them the same as other children. It would not make sense for an adult to have to wear a badge explaining why they deserve to be treated with kindness if they don’t meet your gaze. The general expectation is to treat everyone equitably and with respect. So, why do we assume that a reminder of that is necessary for a simple holiday activity like trick or treating? 

So, regardless of age, costume, speech, or mannerisms—give your neighbors (big or little) the benefit of the doubt when October 31st comes around. Try not to overcomplicate things or worry about whether your trick or treater (or someone else’s) is too old to enjoy the activity or not. Enjoy the costumes, treats, and overall environment of the season—without limitation—and encourage others to do the same. Be kind, be safe, and have a very happy Halloween!


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