What age is too old to trick-or-treat? Parents and teens weigh in
Special to The Washington Post October 27, 2023
One might not think of trick-or-treating as a particularly emotional subject. It’s just candy, after all. But for teens and their parents who are wondering when someone is too old to partake in the ritual, the topic can be surprisingly fraught.
Sarah Nicole Landry, a Canadian parent and content creator recently posted a TikTok video asking people to enthusiastically receive teens on Halloween when they are trick-or-treating. “They’re kids,” she says on the verge of tears, “but they’re right on the end.”
Her video went viral, with thousands of comments in response. “As a teenager this made me so happy I cried,” reads one comment. In fact, dozens of comments say some variation of that. Some teens lamented that they wanted to trick-or-treat, but were afraid of getting dirty looks. Others said their own parents discouraged them.
Landry said she was touched by the response. Three of her four children are adolescents (aged 13, 15, and 17), and she’s saddened by the way society often views them as a nuisance, or even a threat. This dynamic was on her mind when she created the video. “I’m really passionate about this,” she said. “If we show up for them like this, you become a home that they feel welcome to if any of them are ever in crisis. They might remember you being enthusiastic when they showed up to your door. They might also feel like maybe they’re not an annoyance. They might feel like a kid again.”
That trick-or-treating is so strongly associated with childhood is what can make it a bit tricky for teenagers. To move on from it is to acknowledge the end of an era, which might be wrapped up in feelings about what it means to grow up and trade in make-believe and innocence with responsibility (and potentially intimidating alternatives, like adult-free house parties). Many teens also missed out on normal childhood experiences during the pandemic and may feel especially motivated to enjoy them. But there are many who do openly judge kids who look “too old” to partake in the youthful tradition.
Kaitlyn Abellar, an 18-year-old in southwest Florida, says it never occurred to her that she wouldn’t go trick or treating this Halloween. “It’s always been a tradition for my family,” she said. As the eldest of five children, she’s often takes her younger siblings. This year, she’s excited to knock on doors with her 15-year-old sister, as they did last year. “We had a blast, and it was just so much fun,” she said. “I felt like it wasn’t Halloween if I didn’t go trick-or-treating.” They’re considering dressing up as fairies this year.
But in some municipalities, trick-or-treating is actually prohibited after a certain age. In Portsmouth, Va., trick-or-treating is limited to those 12 years old or younger. According to the police department, this is to maintain safety and to ensure that there are enough resources (ie: candy) for younger children.
“Older teenagers or adults trick-or-treating may unintentionally intimidate younger children, leading to a less enjoyable experience for the younger ones,” a spokesperson for the department said in an email. “By having an age limit, the guidelines aim to create a more age-appropriate atmosphere.”
The statement noted that sometimes, older teens have engaged in mischief, such as stealing decorations or causing disturbances. “By restricting trick-or-treating to a younger age group, the guidelines seek to minimize such incidents and preserve the integrity of the community during Halloween festivities,” the statement continued.
Portsmouth isn’t the only place that has age limits for trick-or-treating. Several other Virginia cities and towns have similar restrictions, including Suffolk, Hampton and Chesapeake, whose strict policy -- which formerly included the potential for jail time of up to six months -- received so much mockery in the media several years ago that the mayor was compelled to clarify that no one had ever been arrested for asking for candy. The city council of Chesapeake has since voted to raise the age limit from 12 to 14 and officially remove the threat of jail time, but a $250 fine remains. Other towns with ordinances include St. Michael’s in Maryland and Belleville, Ill., among others.
The ongoing conversation is bubbling up online again this year. On one Facebook parent group, a mother recently wrote that she’s OK with teens asking for candy but resents those who “wreck her lawn” and leave trash around. Another person brought up how some teens will ring doorbells late at night, after the lights have been turned off. The rise of door cameras have led some homeowners to surveil those who take treats from their no-contact candy bowls. Some have posted videos showing kids surreptitiously dumping the entire bowl of candy into a backpack.
But does that occur so much that older children should be banned from throwing on a costume and heading door-to-door?
Landry, for one, said she always talks to her children beforehand. “We remind them to be good community members,” she said. “But that’s how you learn. Not by staying home, but by actually being out there, and having fun and figuring out how you can contribute in that moment.”
For Karen Sanford, a mother of four teens in Seattle, trick-or-treating at this age is a much-needed release, and comes at a sometimes wrenching moment in life when they are not quite kids, but not quite adults. “Teenagers are growing up in a very uncertain world with less and less wonder and imagination,” she said. It’s “a brief moment of recapturing what was fun and magical about being a little kid. Why would I not want them to enjoy those last few moments of joy?” (Of course, she also charges her kids the “parent tax” - where she gets some of their loot.)
Sanford said she loves to give candy to anyone at any age, but particularly to teens. “When I see teenagers on my porch, I see big, awkward babies who act tough yet still need the love of mom. Opening my door and smiling is an easy chance to do this,” she said. “I hope I never get so jaded that I forget to do this.”
Her 17-year-old son, Brady, is looking forward to trick-or-treating this year. “It’s just fun,” he said. “If we’re not old enough to vote or drink, then we’re still young enough to trick or treat.”
One of the challenges with age limits is that kids develop in wildly different ways, both physically and psychologically. Abellar, for instance, said that she looks young for her age, which could affect how people perceive her. “They usually think I’m like 15 or 14, so it’s not as weird for me,” she says.
But some children have the opposite experience: Strangers assume they’re older than they are, and thus more culpable and less innocent. Landry said that her 15-year-old is almost six feet tall, so people often assume she’s an adult. “Adultification”- the term researchers use for the tendency to perceive a child as older and more mature - even has a racial bias, with studies showing that adults are more likely to view Black children as older than they are. That bias can put some children in a tough spot if they’re trying to have fun on Halloween.
Nefertiti Austin, an author and mother of two in Los Angeles, says she supports teens choosing their own activities on Halloween, with some parental input. Her 16-year-old son went trick-or-treating with her until he was 14, but is undecided about this year. Admittedly, she has concerns about his safety. When he told her last week he wanted to carry a toy gun to complete his costume - a popular video game character - she vetoed it.
“Immediately, in my mind, I go to Tamir Rice,” she said, referring to the killing in 2014 of a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun who was killed by a police officer. “You are a Black male,” Austin told her son. “You could make yourself very vulnerable to someone mistakenly seeing you as a threat. Not only is it a big deal, it could possibly be the difference between life and death.”
Provided he adjusts his costume, she will allow him to trick-or-treat this year without adult supervision if he decides he wants to.
As for Austin’s part? “I support teens trick-or-treating,” she says. “It’s a teenager still wanting to engage in a very child-focused activity, and I love that because it’s like they’re holding on to their childhood a little bit longer, and you get to hold on to them a little bit longer.”