Every year around this time, as people’s thoughts turn to Halloween, I see a lot of questions floating around the internet.  What should we do about the candy?  Do we let our kids have candy?  Why can’t Halloween be done without candy?

I used to worry exclusively about answering the Halloween question in and of itself.  But this year, it’s become part of a larger issue for me, and one that I have come to a very deliberate decision about for our family.  It’s not about one day for us, nor should it be for anyone.  It’s about the treats.  It’s about what you do, what you believe, fundamentally, about the treats.  Not on Halloween, per se, but in LIFE.

There’s no one right way to do this.  Let’s get that out of the way with right off the bat.  Some people don’t really do treats, either on Halloween or in life, and that’s fine.  If that works for you and your family, more power to you.  Some people do lots of treats and think it’s just about short of criminal to deprive kids of their birthright to trick-or-treat and pass out in the delirious sugar coma that most of us enjoyed when we were children.  And you know what?  I’m okay with that, too.  Then there are, of course, various stances along the spectrum between the two.  All of which are basically fine by me.  Unless, of course, you’re being inconsistent.

What do I mean by that?  I mean this: If you don’t really do sweets and treats, ever, and you decide to allow your kids to enjoy Halloween to the fullest, you may be sending the kind of mixed message that will not only confuse the kids, but make your life harder later on when you try to rein it all back in.  On the other side of the coin, if you are a person who tends to be relatively lax about treats, but you decide to clamp down and start rationing the Halloween candy because it feels like a lot of excess, you are probably setting yourself up for a battle there, too.  Kids want to know where we stand on things, and the more power we give to a single day (like Halloween) or a single item or group of items (like treats), the more power that day or that item will have over them.

J. and I have struggled with the treat thing, to be honest.  We both grew up in households where treats were available to us on a daily basis, no big deal, though to varying degrees; J.’s brothers still joke about a “three-cookie limit,” which I guess felt restrictive at the time to a bunch of teenaged boys, while in my house there was an infamous “treat drawer” stuffed with all manner of dessert items, and my sister D. and I were allowed to choose something from that drawer twice a day.  Regardless, we both — J. and I — turned out to be people who, yes, enjoy sweets, but don’t feel the need to binge on them and don’t feel deprived if we don’t have them.

With our own boys, however, as we’ve endured struggles with L.’s weight throughout his early childhood (this is a problem that seems to be resolving quite a bit as he gets older; hopefully I’ll have conclusive updates about that soon), we’ve had a harder time figuring out just what to do with the treats.  Do we allow a small treat item each day, provided it’s in proportion to the rest of their diets; or do we try to limit treats to once or twice a week?  Or not at all, unless it’s a birthday or holiday?  Will a cookie a day set L. up for a lifelong weight battle?  Or will restricting things do more harm?

We’ve experimented with all of this, obviously, and we’ve realized the following truths that apply in our household.  They may not resonate for everyone, but they make sense for us.

1) If we restrict treats and only allow the boys a dessert item occasionally, they seem to value the dessert more.  They want it more.  They fixate on it, even.  And then if it’s just a cookie, it’s a huge letdown, because they’ve waited ALL WEEK to get a sweet treat.  Somehow, the amount of negotiation and obsession that happens around that one treat doesn’t feel worth it to me, nor does it feel like a healthy relationship with food.

2) If we let a small sweet treat be a part of their daily routines, it can truly be small.  A square of dark chocolate; a short mug of homemade cocoa; a single-serving packet of Annie’s bunny fruit snacks (which, yes, are a dessert in our house — they’re fine, but they’re just glorified candy, and we treat them that way).  These are not enormous desserts nor major compromises, but they do the trick.  Moreover, the boys are satisfied with a few little bites of something, they don’t ask for nor crave more, and there’s no drama.  There’s no POWER to the treat.  Thus, if we ask them at any point in time to forego a treat — because there will be a party the next day, or because we’re planning an outing where there may be an extra snack opportunity, or whatever — they’re generally okay with that.  They know that treats are regularly available to them, so they don’t feel the need to fuss about the issue.

3) So when it comes to consistency, Halloween doesn’t have to be a hard call for us.  We allow treats.  We have no reason NOT to allow treats on Halloween.  Our boys are used to small portions of dessert at a time, so they won’t be looking to gorge on their haul — they’ll be happy with a couple of little pieces of candy, and then we’ll put it away until the next day.

4) However, just because we “do” Halloween doesn’t mean there aren’t some limitations.  For P., obviously, being a dye-free kid will mean that we’ll have to have acceptable items to trade for his unsafe candy.  And for both boys, we generally limit the overall amount that they collect (by keeping a short-ish trick-or-treat route); and the amount that they KEEP of that haul (by letting them each sort through what they’ve collected and fill a jar or dish we provide to them with the ones they truly want to keep — when that’s full, they’re done).  Anything they don’t keep goes into the big candy dish and is “regifted” to the rest of the trick-or-treaters who come to our door throughout the night.

It’s a system that works for us.  And it works, frankly, because it doesn’t involve stress, negotiations, bargaining, or any kind of freaking out about treats.  We do choose, yes, to provide treats that we think are more moderate and slightly more wholesome, on a general daily basis.  But I’m not fooling myself, or them — a treat is a treat, and just because it’s “less bad” than a Twinkie, doesn’t mean it’s a health food.  So when an occasion like Halloween arises, and a moderate amount of mainstream candy comes into play, I feel okay about letting them indulge in small quantities.  Nothing’s forbidden, it’s still just a treat, and in the end, the “damage” that may be done by eating a few days’ worth of 3 Musketeers bars each year, without parental comment or freak-out, is probably far less than the “damage” we might do if we outright banned them from finding out what those 3 Musketeers bars are really all about.

The bonus of this arrangement happens to be, by the way, that while my kids are kids — and they certainly like all those Halloween sweets — they actually tend to PREFER the kinds of things we offer them more regularly.  They like their chocolate darker, their candies slightly less sweet, and they LOVE a good home-baked treat like these miniature pumpkin-chocolate chip muffins.  They greet these things with the same enthusiasm they’d show for a big fudge brownie or an ice cream cone.  I feel good because offering treats like these more often means that I can say “yes” to occasions like Halloween; they feel good because they’ve got chocolate chip muffins.  For now, it works.