As the days get shorter and my kids solidify their Halloween costume choices each fall, I begin to notice a theme in online parenting groups and playground chats. Not only is it time for DIY Elsa wigs and trying to figure out how an inflatable dinosaur costume works, but it’s also time for moms to get themselves worked up into a tizzy over the influx of candy about to enter their homes.
“How do you ration the candy your kids get trick-or-treating? I don’t want a free-for-all!” says one mom. “We don’t eat refined sugar, so we leave our candy out for the Switch Witch, who will give them some organic fruit snacks,” chides another. “We donate it to the troops!” One mom makes her kids pick their 20 favorite pieces of candy to be eaten one at a time over 20 days, and she puts the rest on the conference table at her office. The candy control situation is, well, out of control.
How did we get here? I do not remember having much conversation in our house about Halloween candy. After trick-or-treating, my brothers and I just… ate our candy. Sometimes, a lot of it results in a stomachache. We traded with each other for our favorites, and my mom eventually tossed the least popular bits that were left after a few weeks. There was no stress around enjoying our candy.
Now, it’s become a whole thing (like most parenting topics). The decision to just let my kids eat their candy feels ripe for judgment by others, but I think there’s a lesson for my kids to learn in letting them choose how to enjoy those procured goodies.
I want to preface my rant by saying some kids don’t have free access to candy due to allergies or medical conditions. To those parents navigating a tough, treat-filled holiday and creating inventive candy swaps, you’re rock stars.
For the rest of us, though, the candy-rationing obsession seems to have resulted from some sort of disastrous train wreck between intensive parenting and diet culture — and it’s hurting our kids. There is endless anxiety and a strong push for “clean eating” and “wellness” (both just a prettier repackaging of said diet culture). Children receive input from the broader culture daily that restricting food and achieving a small body are important goals. My 5-year-old, who is technically small on the growth curve, told me she wanted to walk to school because “exercise is how we lose weight.”
The messages are loud and insidious, and it feels like a daily battle to convince my kids to love the body they were given. If I let her parade around in her Wednesday Addams costume, filling her plastic pumpkin with treats, and then act as if the spoils of her evening are toxic, I am just reinforcing that negative messaging.
I know the criticisms of our approach.
“But what if they get a belly ache?” They then learn that too much candy in one sitting doesn’t make them feel good. They learn to listen to their body. We talk about it. They can make the choice to eat four Reese’s Cups, but then they need to think through the consequences. If I hide the candy away and give out a piece at a time, I am teaching them to listen to some arbitrary rules I created rather than their own body.
“What if they eat it all in two days?” Then the candy is gone. One of my kids did this and was pretty sad when siblings wouldn’t share from their bags. The lesson that year was that he may choose to binge all his candy, but sometimes savoring the sweet treats is worth it.
“What if they get fat?” This one, I think, is the real fear of most mothers obsessing over Halloween candy. Raised in a world that told us larger bodies were wrong, we carry this baggage into parenthood. All of our issues and old hurts and tearful moments in the dressing room with our own mothers come bubbling to the surface. If we give our kids all the candy, they might get fat, and then how will the world see them? This is not being said but shouted from between the lines of the broader conversation. What if they get fat and hate their bodies like many of us hate ours?
I realize Halloween is just one night of the year filled with negative messages about food and bodies. It’s also the perfect time to teach our kids to think about food as joy and how their bodies feel and let them learn to trust themselves a little.
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating or frequent anxiety over food, consider reaching out to the National Eating Disorders Association.
Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed., is a journalist and essayist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s a mom to four kids via adoption as well as a twin mom. She loves to write about parenting, education, trends, and the general hilarity of raising little people.