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Try skipping the 'trunk-or-treat' events to let your kids enjoy, and learn from, the real thing

Stock image via Flickr

I love trunk-or-treating, the increasingly ubiquitous alternative to street-side trick-or-treating, in which local families, costumed, gather in a school or church parking lot to exchange candy. Since the New York Times first reported on this trend in 2006, this tailgating version of Halloween has spread from a few small communities to a nationwide event. The phenomenon appears to be most popular in wealthy suburbs like mine, where homes are far apart, but it can be found in all kinds of neighborhoods.

The idea is to transfer "Halloween from the uncertain streets to the safety of church and school parking lots, turning the backs of minivans and sport utility vehicles into the new front porch," per the Times' report.

And it can be fun: Last year, I took my three kids -- dressed as Darth Vader, Kylo Ren and some days-gone-by movie starlet in a long, silver, sequined dress and white, faux fur stole -- to the parking lot of the elementary school in our small Connecticut town, where we sashayed from car trunk to car trunk. The excursion made for fascinating eye candy: pounds of fun-size Almond Joys, Milky Ways and M & Ms in large aluminum tubs. Brightly colored plastic buckets with regenerating supplies of Sour Patch Kids, Candy Corn and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. A parade of Batmen and Wonder Women. French Bulldogs dressed as hot dogs, yippy Chihuahuas in Yoda attire. And cars decked out like floats: one car a fake pumpkin patch, another a mummy graveyard, a full Hogwarts. Some parents set up small, carnival-type games, like ring toss or foam basketball. Children can win small prizes or extra candy.

But this new version of a beloved holiday tradition also has me worried as a researcher who studies mental health. Is it really that difficult and unsafe to go door to door? What's so bad about having to trek 10 to 20 yards up a walkway, knock or ring a bell, and wait for the owner to answer? Is it so awful for children to greet their neighbors as the homeowners try to figure out who they are and what they're supposed to be?

I worry that trunk-or-treating is setting our kids up for unrealistic expectations of life and taking away opportunities to practice life skills. It makes getting candy physically and emotionally easier. Kids don't have to get cold feet or experience any negative emotions. And they don't get the chance to read social cues, attempt patience, regulate emotions or remember manners. It's a perfect case of what psychologist Wendy Mogel warned against in her book "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee." She worried that we were afflicting our children with ingratitude and entitlement. She argued that with if we made things too easy, our children would become less resourceful and likely less appreciative.

Halloween used to help us in, at least some small way, build resilience and grit; it socialized us. We had to put on our huge smiles as we approached a house; we had to express gratitude for a treat (extra gratitude if we got two treats instead of one.) We learned that a porch light meant a homeowner was handing out candy, and a dim porch meant to pass by politely.

It could all feel quite spooky: To trick-or-treat without parents meant overcoming fears and building independence. We'd shiver in the air's chill and shudder upon seeing the scary-looking house that stood by itself at the end of the cul-de-sac. We'd wonder: Do we dare knock, and who might greet us? We'd tempt fate for another piece. Finally, with heavy sacks, we'd stagger home.

In some towns, trunk-or-treat precedes supplements Halloween; in others, it has replaced the street event entirely. Did this happen for the children, or for the grown-ups? Trunk-or-treating, after all, can be more convenient for parents. But I also think it's a sign of our own willful infantilization, the collapsing of the distinction between adult and child. Trunk-or-treating gives us (moms in particular) another social event, and another thing to do alongside our children, rather than letting them go out on their own.

Still, I'll be back this year, dressed as an archer in a velvet emerald-hooded tunic with faux leather armbands and dark brown leggings, matching my 10-year-old daughter. Maybe there'll be some rum in my cider. And I know I'll have company.

- Joan Cook is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine's department of psychiatry.

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