How Old Is Too Old To Trick or Treat?

We can all agree that Trump and Biden are over the line. But where is it?

Over the weekend, I saw Annie Atherton‘s WaPo essay “What age is too old to trick-or-treat? Parents and teens weigh in.” As a father of 12- and 14-year-old girls who plan to partake in the event this evening, it’s a topic of interest.

One might not think of trick-or-treating as a particularly emotional subject. It’s just candy, after all. But for teens and their parents who are wondering when someone is too old to partake in the ritual, the topic can be surprisingly fraught.

Sarah Nicole Landry, a Canadian parent and content creator, recently posted a Tik Tok video asking people to enthusiastically receive teens on Halloween when they are trick-or-treating. “They’re kids,” she says on the verge of tears, “but they’re right on the end.”

Her video went viral, with thousands of comments in response. “As a teenager this made me so happy I cried,” reads one comment. In fact, dozens of comments say some variation of that. Some teens lamented that they wanted to trick-or-treat, but were afraid of getting dirty looks. Others said their own parents discouraged them.

Landry said she was touched by the response. Three of her four children are adolescents (ages 13, 15 and 17), and she’s saddened by the way society often views them as a nuisance, or even a threat. This dynamic was on her mind when she created the video. “I’m really passionate about this,” she said. “If we show up for them like this, you become a home that they feel welcome to if any of them are ever in crisis. They might remember you being enthusiastic when they showed up to your door. They might also feel like maybe they’re not an annoyance. They might feel like a kid again.”

That trick-or-treating is so strongly associated with childhood is what can make it a bit tricky for teenagers. To move on from it is to acknowledge the end of an era, which might be wrapped up in feelings about what it means to grow up and trade in make-believe and innocence for responsibility (and potentially intimidating alternatives, like adult-free house parties). Many teens also missed out on normal childhood experiences during the pandemic and may feel especially motivated to enjoy them. But there are many who do openly judge kids who look “too old” to partake in the youthful tradition.

Kaitlyn Abellar, an 18-year-old in southwest Florida, says it never occurred to her that she wouldn’t go trick-or-treating this Halloween. “It’s always been a tradition for my family,” she said. As the eldest of five children, she often takes her younger siblings. This year, she’s excited to knock on doors with her 15-year-old sister, as they did last year. “We had a blast, and it was just so much fun,” she said. “I felt like it wasn’t Halloween if I didn’t go trick-or-treating.” They’re considering dressing up as fairies this year.

I’m not sure, exactly, what age I was when I last trick-or-treated. It was certainly before I was in middle school, as my youngest is this year, much less high school, which my oldest started this year. I don’t remember being shamed out of it. I think it was partly a function over the intermittent hysteria over strangers poisoning candy and no longer feeling the urge to dress up in costume.

Because I had kids quite late (I was an Army officer when my dad was the age I was when my second was born), I spent decades handing out candy to trick-or-treaters before taking my own out.* And, yes, I tended to look askance at teenagers coming by for candy—especially, as was often the case, when they didn’t bother to dress up.** I’ve never run them away, though.

Here’s a plot twist I did not foresee:

But in some municipalities, trick-or-treating is actually prohibited after a certain age. In Portsmouth, Va., trick-or-treating is limited to those 12 or younger. According to the police department, this is to maintain safety and to ensure that there are enough resources (i.e. candy) for younger children.

“Older teenagers or adults trick-or-treating may unintentionally intimidate younger children, leading to a less enjoyable experience for the younger ones,” a spokesperson for the department said in an email. “By having an age limit, the guidelines aim to create a more age-appropriate atmosphere.”

The statement noted that sometimes, older teens have engaged in mischief, such as stealing decorations or causing disturbances. “By restricting trick-or-treating to a younger age group, the guidelines seek to minimize such incidents and preserve the integrity of the community during Halloween festivities,” the statement continued.

Portsmouth isn’t the only place that has age limits for trick-or-treating. Several other Virginia cities and towns have similar restrictions, including Suffolk, Hampton and Chesapeake, whose strict policy — which formerly included the potential for jail time of up to six months — received so much mockery in the media several years ago that the mayor was compelled to clarify that no one had ever been arrested for asking for candy. The city council of Chesapeake has since voted to raise the age limit from 12 to 14 and officially remove the threat of jail time, but a $250 fine remains. Other towns with ordinances include St. Michaels, Md., and Belleville, Ill.

That seems . . . extreme. While I do think my kids, especially the oldest, should probably have aged out of it by now, they’re certainly not out performing mischief.

For that matter, the “trick” part of the event has a long tradition. While it was never my scene, high schoolers definitely enjoyed toilet papering trees and egging houses in my day. Presumably, this was a misdemeanor of some sort. Frankly, it would be preferable to have them out in costumes begging for candy.

The ongoing conversation is bubbling up online again this year. On one Facebook parent group, a mother recently wrote that she’s okay with teens asking for candy but resents those who “wreck her lawn” and leave trash around. Another person brought up how some teens will ring doorbells late at night, after the lights have been turned off. The rise of door cameras has led some homeowners to surveil those who take treats from their no-contact candy bowls. Some have posted videos showing kids surreptitiously dumping the entire bowl of candy into a backpack.

So, that’s obviously bad behavior. And, presumably, younger kids, who tend to be accompanied by their parents, are less likely to do that. Then again, I’ve never understood the “put a bowl out” people. If you’re not home or don’t want to be bothered, just turn off the porch light.

But does that occur so much that older children should be banned from throwing on a costume and heading door-to-door?

Landry, for one, said she always talks to her children beforehand. “We remind them to be good community members,” she said. “But that’s how you learn. Not by staying home, but by actually being out there, and having fun and figuring out how you can contribute in that moment.”

That might be asking a bit much of unaccompanied adolescents but, yeah. We still take the 12-year-old around, but that’s mostly a function of having to drive to get where she trick-or-treats.

For Karen Sanford, a mother of four teens in Seattle, trick-or-treating at this age is a much-needed release, and comes at a sometimes wrenching moment in life when they are not quite kids, but not quite adults. “Teenagers are growing up in a very uncertain world with less and less wonder and imagination,” she said. It’s “a brief moment of recapturing what was fun and magical about being a little kid. Why would I not want them to enjoy those last few moments of joy?” (Of course, she also charges her kids the “parent tax” — where she gets some of their loot.)

Sanford said she loves to give candy to anyone at any age, but particularly to teens. “When I see teenagers on my porch, I see big, awkward babies who act tough yet still need the love of mom. Opening my door and smiling is an easy chance to do this,” she said. “I hope I never get so jaded that I forget to do this.”

Her 17-year-old son, Brady, is looking forward to trick-or-treating this year. “It’s just fun,” he said. “If we’re not old enough to vote or drink, then we’re still young enough to trick-or-treat.”

Honestly, at that age, they should just go to parties with friends if they want to dress up. You can join the Army at 17, for goodness sake.

One of the challenges with age limits is that kids develop in wildly different ways, both physically and psychologically. Abellar, for instance, said that she looks young for her age, which could affect how people perceive her. “They usually think I’m like 15 or 14, so it’s not as weird for me,” she says.

But some children have the opposite experience: Strangers assume they’re older than they are, and thus more culpable and less innocent. Landry said that her 15-year-old is almost six feet tall, so people often assume she’s an adult. “Adultification” — the term researchers use for the tendency to perceive a child as older and more mature — even has a racial bias, with studies showing that adults are more likely to view Black children as older than they are. That bias can put some children in a tough spot if they’re trying to have fun on Halloween.

Sure. And, honestly, kids just grow up much slower than they used to. For a variety of reasons, they have both considerably less freedom and responsibility than was the case when I was growing up. Certainly, that’s the case of my own kids and, indeed, my 20-something stepchildren. So, it’s natural that they’re going to hang on to the vestiges of childhood longer.***


*And, since then, I don’t think I’ve handed out candy once as, by the time we’re back, it’s time to get them to bed and I don’t want people ringing the doorbell. The neighborhood we moved to four years ago is sufficiently remote and bereft that nobody bothers to trick-or-treat here, even the handful of kids who live here. We go to the adjacent small town, which hosts a town-wide trick-or-treat festivity—although the oldest has gone off with friends the last two years instead.

**My oldest is on the verge of that this year. Her “costume” consists of a hoodie, a red woollen scarf, and some Minecraft-style sunglasses. She’s ostensibly some character from that game but one suspects that 99% of the candy-givers will see her as a kid in a hoodie and sunglasses.

***No, they’re not still trick-or-treating.

FILED UNDER: Parenting, Society, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jen says:

    I don’t remember when I stopped trick-or-treating either, but my hunch is that it stopped when we moved overseas when I was in middle school. The American community I lived in overseas (in W. Germany) had a teen club that had an annual Halloween party, that became the default activity for my age group. I think the littles still trick-or-treated in the US apartment complex.

    That being said, I really don’t care if some teens want to show up here and ask for candy, particularly if they go all-out in costumes (some of the teens are remarkably creative with their outfits).

  2. Scott says:

    Each community/generation has its own traditions. When I was a teenager we didn’t go trick or treating. We went up to the school yard and threw eggs and hit each other with socks filled with flour.

    Tradition in our neighborhood is that trick or treating is from 6-8. And if you don’t want anyone to ring your bell after that then you just turn the front porch light off and don’t answer the door.

  3. KM says:

    How old is too old for trick or treating?

    Dead – that’s how old. What is the point of gatekeeping age for this other then to try and say “it’s only for kids!!!” It’s a way of taking something people clearly enjoy and have fond memories of, only to lock it away behind an arbitrary age line like video games.

    Seriously, I do not care who you are, what age, what might be going on in your life – you show up at my door during the appointed hours, you get candy. That’s the social contract of Halloween – a complete stranger gives a complete stranger a gift of sweets for coming to visit them and not engage in mischief. The whole point of public Halloween events was to keep older kids away from trouble, after all. Let them trick or treat!

  4. Michael Cain says:

    My city’s touristy downtown has trick-or-treating for kids less than five with parents from 10:00 to noon. Every little business has someone in costume out in front handing out treats. Everyone understands what’s going on, so if you have actual business, you know that you’re going to have to mosey along the sidewalk and enjoy the kids. Some are on the verge of panic, some are doing fine. My favorite last year was a little boy about 14 months, riding in his dad’s chest carrier, dressed like a devil. He had obviously just figured out about waving and was having a great time, waving to everyone he could make eye contact with.

  5. Kingdaddy says:

    Larry David tried to draw a line…

  6. Randommentality says:

    My boys, 12 and 14, are going out together with friends. Nobody cares. Just go with the holiday fun, people. If an adult can dress as Santa, kids (of whatever age) can trick or treat.

  7. Pete S says:

    My daughter was never that into trick or treating – by the time she was 12 we offered her the choice of staying home so she could go out for Hallowe’en, or a weekend away to go to a college football game. She chose wisely and never looked back….

    My only pet peeve with Hallowe’en is parents who both go out with the kids, so nobody is home handing out candy. I get it for maybe the first time they go. I don’t think the intention though is for only households with no kids to be the ones giving out treats.

  8. steve says:

    I will confess that the older teens who show up in regular clothes with a pillowcase or backpack irritate me though I still give them candy. The older ones who get in costume dont bother me at all. I always buy too much candy anyway.


  9. Kathy says:

    In my block, it was understood the older kids (15-18) helped look after the younger children while trick or treating.

  10. becca says:

    Since there are no trick or treaters on our side of the lake, we go down to the kids’ neighborhood and hand out candy while they, Mom Dad and grand girls go out. They all dress up in costume. It seems like the whole neighborhood dresses up and goes out to enjoy the lights and smoke machines and haunted yards. There are always some four-wheelers towing small trailers ferrying grannies and small kids cove to cove, so old legs and little legs don’t wear out too soon. It’s a great community builder. All ages participate.

  11. KM says:

    Serious question: do you feel it’s because they are there for free candy without doing the performative work necessary to “earn” it? Taking advantage somehow?

    I know this is a prevalent stance but I’m curious as to the reasoning (rational and irrational) behind it. It’s similar to those awful blue pumpkins autism moms are trying to push – so what if your kid doesn’t or can’t say “Trick or Treat”? I don’t need a marker to signify that as they are clearly at my door for candy. We all know why you are there and what’s going on. So what if you don’t meet the traditional criteria or recite the chant? You’re here for candy and maybe show off your costume. It’s about the trick-or-treater, not the candy-giver but there’s a surprising amount of both Grinch and Karen in Halloween you only find out as you get older.

  12. steve says:

    It’s all subjective and it’s just my feelings, but I feel like the older kids who dont bother dressing up are not really participating in the spirit of the event. They are just showing up for free candy which doesnt seem to be the entire point of the event. I actually dress up to give out the candy and the last 2 years I have had the adopted grandkids, in costume, to “help”. In past years I have made a tunnel with black lights, glowing rats and spiders, sound activated dead rat, etc. So, I still give them candy. They may have individual circumstances I dont understand, but it still just doesnt feel quite right.


  13. KM says:


    They are just showing up for free candy which doesnt seem to be the entire point of the event.

    Ummm, then what is? This has got to be an age thing…..

    “You’re not worthy of candy because I’m judging you by arbitrary standards” is a terrible message to send and yet every Halloween, we get people who think someone isn’t doing it “right” and shouldn’t get anything. “You need to please me to get free candy” is even worse because then it’s not free, it’s pay for play and kinda gross when you really think about it. It’s candy, not gold. Perhaps its socialist of me but I’d rather everyone have a nice time with free goodies then dance through hoops.

    I took the guys from the group home trick or treating for years and people were sh^tty about it. So what if they’re teens in all white regulars clothes with orange on their nose (a snowman!). They just wanted to have fun and get the candy they’re normally not allowed. I vowed to never be that person and give like it’s going out of style to all comers. The only input I have into the process is light on/off when I’m done or out of treats.

  14. Kari Q says:

    I don’t care how old anyone is. If a 40 year old shows up at my door on Halloween and says “Trick or treat” then I am giving them candy.

    One of my neighbors has a developmentally disabled daughter. She is in her 20s but still very childlike and her parents go out with her every year. She gets so much joy from it. I would hate to think of someone being upset and saying that she is too old.

    The whole thing is about fun, any way. If people are having fun, that’s all that matters.

  15. Sleeping Dog says:

    Can’t remember when I stopped as a kid, likely around 14-15.

    When we lived in St Louis we were a couple of blocks from Washington Univ. and every year we’d get a couple of groups younger, college aged women. I suspected they were sorority pledges going through initiation as there was another group of women laughing at them and directing them.

  16. CSK says:

    I quit when I was twelve. Whatever floats your boat.

  17. Kazzy says:

    Teenagers wanting to engage in youthful, wholesome fun is problematic… why exactly? The alternative is they find “more mature” fun on their own… the exact sort of fun we’d all wring our hands about.

    Relatedly, I was talking today with a colleague about how poorly we seem to set kids up to explore appropriate, safe, and healthy forms of mischief. We seem to alternate between chastising OTHER people’s kids for even the slightest indiscretion and VALORIZING our own kids for obvious acts of anti-social behavior. So how are they supposed to know where that line is? There will always be a-holes who go too far on purpose and others who get caught up in the moment and can’t pump the brakes, but most kids looking to cause “mischief” — be it on Halloween, the night before, or whenever — are merely looking to scratch a developmentally-appropriate itch and we’re better off if we help them find the right ways to do so.

    In my town, there is apparently a tradition where high schoolers (maybe it’s limited to graduating seniors?) “fork” each other’s lawn… basically planting dozens and dozens of forks in the grass. It’s an annoyance to the home owner but, generally speaking, they are doing it to their friends which means you just said your own teen outside to collect them. And yet we have folks posting on social media about how they are going to use their Ring cameras to have the “perps” arrested. Well, what then for these kids? If every act of defiance or subversiveness is criminal… if each act is as bad as any other… then why would they stop themselves at relatively harmless egging or TPing and not just starting smashing things of actual value? I mean… we treat it all the same anyway.

    Let teens trick-or-treat. And let them have some naughty fun. As adults, we should be guiding them to learn where the lines are rather than penning them in without any outlets and then coming down hard on them for breaking free of those bounds.

  18. de stijl says:

    Twelve. Twelve is too old. Maybe eleven. Eleven is pushing it.

    Unless you are 16 plus and then I highly encourage you to dress up and have fun, but maybe not knock on random doors and beg for candy.

    Real life needs a impetus thing like Halloween more often. Dress up weird and have fun.

  19. Franklin says:

    Age 15 or 6’2″, whichever comes first

  20. Lounsbury says:

    @KM: It;s not a terrible message except to those whose skulls have been opened up from over-reaching “open mindedness”

    There is a cultural event, it involves making some effort at a custom for which unhealthy candies are handed out. Group performance, without particularly high nor demanding standards as I recall from when I lived in places celebrating fucking around with Halloween. Not making an effort is giving a snotty teenager finger to the others.

    Of course if this were not an Anglo-Irish white persons cultural reference point then you would of course be writing rather about disrespecting [insert ethnic minority cultural event X here] .

    Simple denial of candy is hardly a bloody moral position or market.

    (as for age, I should say if one rather looks like an adult and are not accompagnying any children even if adolescents, it’s somewhat pathetic and you should sod off and do what proper pathetic adults do, get staggering drunk alone in bar)

  21. steve says:

    “Ummm, then what is? ”

    I think the point is celebrating a common theme as a community. At one point it was about facing fears that occur in the night as you were going into the long nights of winter, but now its more about having fun by dressing up weird, meeting your community AND also getting candy. It feels like the older teen in regular clothes is likely skipping the first two parts. But, as I said, I dont really know their individual circumstances so i treat them well and give them candy. I would note that I like to talk with people and I love kids. The older kids in costumes seem to come in groups and are having a good time. They will chat and joke with you. They will talk about their costumes or their favorite superhero. The ones out of costume seem to come in ones and twos and run as soon as they have candy. Having been the father of the odd, socially inept kid on the spectrum I can see maybe some of these kids being the odd ones but certainly not the vibes I get. Who knows, I could be wrong. ( I also think Christmas is about more than receiving gifts or Thanksgiving is about more than eating turkey.)


  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kazzy: On the naughty fun end of it, the years that I was commissioned to discourage the prom night naughty fun by the school district, the best I could come up with was to caution them that child support in the jurisdiction in which they lived had recently been raised to 25.* I’m ambivalent about encouraging teenagers to engage in naughty fun, though. ETA: I guess it’s the bluenose in me, I dunno.

    *Well, that and the statistically safe seat in a car driven by a drunk is the one with the steering wheel in front of it. 🙁

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @steve: The last Halloween party I went to was in Korea and I dressed in my teaching clothes and came as Ted Bundy. Will you please all shut up about street clothes NOT being a costume now?

  24. Kazzy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Sorry… I was talking about WHOLLY non-sexual naughty fun.

  25. Kevin says:

    Wife’s at the hospital working overnight, and I’m taking two small children trick-or-treating. So I leave out a bowl of candy; otherwise, I’d feel weird walking around with my children asking for candy.

    Although based on what happened later in the evening, they might well have had as much fun giving out candy as they did getting it.

  26. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    Hey guys, be honest. If Biden and Trump showed up on your front porch asking for candy, you know you’d be handing it out by the scoopful.

    Although I do remember one girlfriends neighborhood. This was from my college days, and her dad introduced me to the cul-de-sac concept. There were a dozen houses in the cul-de-sac, and while the kids walked around collecting candy, the adults followed afterwards, collecting drinks. Yes we were all hammered, and the kids ate way too much candy, but a good time was had by all

  27. Richard Gardner says:

    Rather dismal turnout here this year (6, all under 8) compared to pre-Covid years of up to 50 with many teenagers. On Saturday there were two Trunk-or-treat events near me, one at the local elementary school (just reopened after a 2 year rebuild) and the other in a former high crime area along the major Interstate (I-5) where the sleazy motels are being converted into (crappy?) studio apartments for folks on housing vouchers (Section 8, etc) in an area that already has low end apartments renting for more than my mortgage. The 1st of the new apartment complexes (former motels) of 6 complexes in the works, about 900 units between the 7 complexes (including a Motel 6 at 330 units), was the host for their grand opening and it was a big local networking event for folks involved in city affairs. I helped out by spotting a few folks so they could leave their tables and tour the new model apartment and office. Lots of young kids from the lower income apartments nearby, so glad to see the kids having fun in their area. I doubt they would have done Trick-or-treat in their apartment complex (was high crime, now moderate and declining).