This Halloween, Say Yes

Reasons to be grumpy on Halloween:

· Teenagers too old to trick-or-treat doing just that

· Kids not saying “Trick or treat!” or “Thank you!”

· Trick-or-treating kids who are not in costume, or have lame costumes

· Parents of tiny babes in arms holding out a plastic pumpkin for treats “for the baby”

· Kids from other neighborhoods coming to your neighborhood to trick-or-treat

These offenders may not be following strict Halloween etiquette — if there even is such a thing — but so what? Halloween is about scary things, and too much sugar, and the fun of dressing up like something we’ll never be in real life. At its best, though, it’s also about community, and that’s when we, the adults, get to (cheerfully) play our part.

Halloween is singular among American holidays in its glorious mishmash of public and private. On religious holidays, we retreat inside our homes and places of worship. On national holidays like the Fourth of July, we come outside to public spaces and gather for fireworks and parades.

Halloween breaks the mold, though — it’s the only holiday when we throw open our doors –quite literally — and bring the festivities from our homes to the streets. Trick-or-treating is a sort of icebreaker game for the neighborhood, where we’re all drawn together for a couple of hours of silliness, fun, and connection.

For years, there has been talk about the decline of civic engagement in America. Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, upended the cultural conversation in 2000 with its worry that Americans are less connected with each other, as we trend ever more toward our homes and individual leisure time instead of collective leisure time and community involvement.

Remember, this was written pre-smartphone. Now the stakes are even higher, as we try to negotiate today’s social-technological territory and fret that even within our own homes we are losing our children, and ourselves, to an electronic stupor.

Nevertheless, Halloween is still the opposite of all that. Unlike so many other things, not much has changed since today’s parents were kids. For children, it’s still carefree fun. For adults, it’s a chance to be generous, to be friendly, and to be welcoming. It’s a chance to do all that face to face.

The teenagers who come to your door are not stuck on their phones. They’re not growing up too fast, and are not yet soured on kid stuff like Halloween trick-or-treating. They’re not egging or TPing your house. They’re having a little lark, enjoying the last days of a childhood that are so quickly slipping away. Let them. (And give them some candy.)

The little ones (or big ones) who don’t say “trick or treat” or “thank you” might simply be shy. They might have trouble with social graces because of autism or some other situation that you aren’t aware of. They might not have parents who model manners for them. Or they might just be rude or forgetful, as children sometimes are. Regardless, this is your chance to model kindness and politeness. Say a cheerful “Happy Halloween!” and ask them about their costumes. (And give them some candy.)

The kid with no costume, or a lame costume? He might barely have enough money for a jacket for the chilly fall weather. Her parents might think that spending on a costume for her for one day is frivolous, so she’s cobbled together whatever she could find around the house. Maybe she’s just not that creative, or she’s lazy. Whatever the reason, you don’t know it, and it’s not your business. Greet them kindly, and don’t mention the lack of costume. (And give them some candy.)

The young parent trick-or-treating with a baby too little for candy? (Because in my experience, it’s always a very young parent, not much older than those teenagers who are going door to door.) Being a parent is hard work, and starting parenthood before you’re out of your teens is exponentially harder. Make this small part of that tough path easier, and find it in yourself to be gracious and friendly. (And give them some candy.)

How about the kids who aren’t from your neighborhood? Here is where your heart can afford to be its biggest. My town, a fairly well-off suburb, lies at the edge of desperately poor parts of the city of Cleveland. In droves, parents bring their children from neighborhoods of boarded-up windows and litter-strewn streets here, to our tree-lined neighborhoods. Every year, there are more than 400 children at the door in the 90 minutes our town allots for trick-or-treating. Every year, someone complains about “kids who aren’t even from the neighborhood.”

Can’t they be, for just one night? Can’t our neighborhood, which prides itself on diversity but is really mostly white and middle-class, handle the idea that most of these extra little visitors are black and poor? Can’t we put ourselves in the place of the visiting parents, who are eager to provide a bit of innocent, safe fun for their children? Can’t we afford to be kind, to spread our arms a little wider, to be in it together?

If we can’t do these small things, and we must grump and complain over our rules and our borders at every opportunity, we have failed. We have failed at civility, at kindness, at generosity. But we needn’t fail, not when it’s so easy to make it a happy Halloween for everyone: Smile, be friendly, and give them some candy. All of them.