Let your child trade some of their unhealthy treats for something they value, such as a book or a toy
Halloween brings out the curmudgeon in me. I have always struggled to drum up any enthusiasm for it. I think I was traumatised by one bin-bag-based costume too many in my childhood.
My children had to rely on their mother to organise and accompany them on their trick-or-treating tours while I just about tolerated the distribution of treats to callers to our house.
Consequently, I always read anything that incorporates the words ‘Halloween’ and ‘banned’ in the hope the holiday was done away with. The build-up to this year’s event generated several stories, two of which particularly caught my eye.
The first was about Richard Bacon, the TV and radio presenter who has started a ‘Sweets Aren’t Treats’ campaign to counter the traditional “sugarfest” that Halloween represents.
You may or may not know Bacon, and some of his suggestions for healthy alternatives to sweets, such as avocado on toast, are not going to appeal to many non-hipster six-year-olds, but the premise of his campaign is sound.
Obesity in children is a big problem. The most recent Healthy Ireland, Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) data shows that one in five children are overweight or obese.
Previous Healthy Ireland studies have shown that just under one in four of those who are obese are sufficiently active to meet the national guidelines, compared to almost four in 10 of those with a normal weight or overweight.
When it comes to food, the figures are equally concerning. Only a quarter of children eat fruit and vegetables daily. Meanwhile, a quarter are eating sweets daily. Then Halloween rolls around and we encourage children to forage for sweets. Ironically, most parents I speak to are horrified by the amount of ‘junk’ their children gather, yet feel powerless to intervene.
They are afraid, perhaps, of appearing curmudgeonly like me. They worry they are depriving their children of some tradition that will leave a traumatic mark on them as they grow older.
If you fall into the group of parents that really hate the deluge of sweets, but can’t quite avoid the trick or treating, there are things you can do.
One of the best suggestions I heard is to arrange a ‘sweet swap’, where you can encourage your children to set aside the majority of the sweets they were given to be swapped for something else your child values.
It may be that they can be swapped for a book or a toy, or art materials, or anything you feel happier for your children to have. This might cost you a few euro, but protecting your children from the onslaught of sugar may be worth it.
The second story I noticed was about a Dublin primary school banning Squid Games costumes. Since most primary schools arrange a Halloween costume day, parents get an annual notification about what counts as appropriate dress-up fare.
Many schools, for example, will suggest that costumes are not too scary so they don’t overly frighten the junior and senior-infant children. There may also be prohibition on things like masks, weapons, hair dye or excessive face painting.
In case you haven’t yet come across it, Squid Games is a Netflix show in which the characters must play old childhood games, with the penalty for not winning the games being elimination. In the programme, the elimination is a gruesome and explicitly-depicted death. It is not a children’s programme.
Despite this, some schools are seeing a rise in the playing of the games from the programme, with the schoolyard equivalent of elimination by death being elimination by being beaten up.
If ever we need proof that children are directly impacted by what they watch, it is examples like this that should serve to frighten us enough that we change our habits.
It is simply not good enough that we rely on screens as digital babysitters, without significant oversight and active curation of the visual content that our children receive.
Of course, it isn’t realistic to stop children watching digital media for entertainment, no more than it is possible to stop children ever eating sweet treats. But just because it appears inevitable doesn’t mean we should abdicate responsibility entirely.
Even with the social pressures that are there, we do need to be actively involved in children’s healthy eating to minimise the risks of excessive weight gain and obesity. We also need to be actively involved in monitoring and restricting what they watch on the screens they have access to.
Perhaps this year’s Halloween build-up seems bigger since it didn’t happen last year. Maybe it has just triggered my inner-curmudgeon. Yet I’m glad it reminded me that we have a duty to our children to protect them from harm.