I started hearing about the Switch Witch a few years ago. If you’re not in the know, she’s the Halloween cousin of that narc, Elf on the Shelf, a symbol of the rank combination of child surveillance and endless materialism that dictates so much of mainstream American parenting.
The Switch Witch works like this: Your child goes out trick-or-treating, collecting as much candy as he or she can fit in a bucket. You let your kid pick out a small sample of that haul — maybe five pieces — and then overnight, the rest is replaced by some kind of present, maybe a toy. Apparently, you can’t just tell your kids to limit their candy intake, if that’s important to you; you have to buy them something else, surreptitiously swap it in and come up with a back story about it as well.
Ostensibly, the Switch Witch is about teaching healthy eating habits, or, in some cases, helping children with diabetes feel less isolated on a holiday that is about gorging on sweets they can’t eat. How can you argue with that, unless you’re a toxic hater?
Therein lies the problem. It seems like every holiday — even the ones that are supposed to have a heavy component of unsupervised mischief — is dominated by increasingly baroque and expensive parent-led rituals. Because it’s not just the Switch Witch, it’s “Boo”-ing your friends and neighbors — creating gift bags that you leave on their doorsteps with instructions that they must “Boo” other people. I’m sure there are other trends that I don’t even know about yet because I aggressively curate my Instagram feed to be ignorant of them.
And if you try to opt out of all this, your kids may wonder why you’re such a washout as a mother. A week ago, my 7-year-old asked me why we didn’t have more Halloween decorations in our apartment, even though I bought her and her sister tiny pumpkins at the grocery store, and it was all I could do not to tell her: Ma’am, this is not a Michaels.
You’re also potentially subject to the judgment of your whole community, as the Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen noted in a thread on X. Olen, whose kids are now grown, recounted the semipublic shamings she racked up over the years for allowing them to do various things for themselves, without oversight: “When did Halloween turn into a week long extravaganza with elaborate homemade costumes, multiple parties and parades, all chaperoned by parents?”
Certainly, there are far more serious things to worry about in the world right now than how families choose to celebrate Halloween — if your biggest concern next week is keeping down your children’s high-fructose corn syrup intake, consider yourself fortunate. But Olen’s point is why I find it worthwhile to carp about the impending season of one-upmanship: It’s part of a larger, more serious and potentially negative trend for American children, wherein they’re afforded very little independence.
A recent commentary in The Journal of Pediatrics by two psychologists and an anthropologist argues that children’s lack of autonomy is a cause of the uptick in rates of depression and anxiety among young people.
Their thesis goes something like this: Sixty years ago, children were allowed to do much more on their own from a young age. They walked or biked to school in elementary school; they were allowed to babysit or have paper routes by 11 or 12. There was less homework and youth sports hadn’t quite morphed into today’s youth sports industrial complex, so kids had more unstructured time to be outside and make their own fun, away from adults.
Yes, there’s international variation on these themes, which I’ve written about, and the authors of the commentary cite Finland, in particular, as a place where children still have a lot of autonomy. But the evidence — for example, only about 13 percent of K-8 students walked or biked to school in 2009, compared with nearly 50 percent in 1969 — certainly points to American children having a lot less freedom than they used to. (I’d bet a king-size pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that a lot fewer of them are allowed to go trick-or-treating with just their friends and no adult supervision than in previous decades.)
The authors of the commentary then make an explicit connection to the rise in anxiety and depression among young people in the United States over the past few decades. They theorize that a lack of independent activities negatively affects a child’s internal locus of control. “Internal LOC refers to a person’s tendency to believe they have control over their life and can solve problems as they arise, in contrast to external LOC, which is a tendency to believe their experiences are ruled by circumstances beyond their control,” they explain. When children aren’t allowed to do things on their own, they may have a weaker internal LOC, and that is “highly predictive” of certain levels of anxiety and depression.
“There’s a logic here that I think makes perfect sense and I want people to understand it,” said Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the study’s lead author, when I interviewed him earlier this year. Which is that you’re taking away the opportunity for kids to have control over what they’re doing, “Because you are always controlling them. They’re always in school or they’re in school-like activities or they’re at home and not allowed to go out and do things on their own.”
While arguing for a cause and effect relationship between autonomy and mental health, the study’s authors add this caveat: “We are not suggesting that a decline in opportunities for independent activity is the sole cause of the decline in young people’s mental well-being over decades, only that it is a cause, possibly a major cause.”
Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of “You and Your Adolescent,” cautioned against over-indexing on children’s autonomy as the single driving cause of mental health problems. In an email, he wrote: “It’s lots of things that have additive, interactive and amplifying impacts, and that a bidirectional relationship with things like depression and anxiety. We know that raising children like veal is bad for them. But one reason parents are overcontrolling is that they are worried about things like crime, bullying, inappropriate internet content and so on, and these things have their own negative effect on kids. And the parents are stressed out, which is affecting their parenting.”
Like Dr. Steinberg, I do think that mental health issues are incredibly complicated, and that it’s not helpful to overlook nuance, or to underplay the stressors facing today’s kids — in many ways, the world is more fraught than when you and I were growing up. And I’m not suggesting that curating a bespoke Halloween experience for your children is a one-way ticket to bad adult outcomes, or that every last bit of fun has been drained out of Halloween. But I do want to call out the ever-encroaching parental project management of holiday madness, because at some point, it becomes something of a boiling frog situation.
Every year, a holiday becomes just a little bit more labored, a little bit more controlled. It’s just one more party to monitor, just another fresh costume, just another gift bag, until all your free time and money are gone, and your children have no time or space to let their imaginations run wild, which I thought was the point of Halloween in the first place. If your kids are left to manage their candy harvest by themselves, the world will continue to spin on its axis.