Years ago a friend advised me that I should think through well in advance what family rules I'd expect my teenagers, once I had them, to follow. I remember looking down fondly at the pack of little children around my ankles and thinking, yadda yadda, whatever, I've got ages – ages! – before I need to establish a grand system of Rules for Adolescents.
At that point, the emphasis was on getting the children to say please, to shake hands (“look the grownup in the eye”), and to refrain from grimacing when presented with a plate of unfamiliar food.
Weirdly enough, a decade later, the teenager and almost-teen still haven't required any special lawgiving. But my friend was right in a way I only appreciate every year at about this time – always too late! — when once again I'm ambushed by the lobbyists of the younger set.
“Yummy! And we're going to get Skittles–“
“–and Reeses! And caramels–“
“Say, what's the rule for Halloween candy, again?”
“We can keep all of it!”
“No, we can't, remember? Only–“
“–aw, why not?”
“Um, well, we'll see,” I say definitively and then subside, hoping that finally a brilliant solution to the annual candy carnage will present itself.
Yet it never does. The truth is, I never can quite remember exactly what the rule was last year, and I'm reluctant to ask the children for fear of ripping away the last remnants of the veil and reveal me as, in a manner of speaking, the man behind the curtain.
“But we need to know soon,” the children plead, “It's October! It's practically Halloween, already!”
Americans are such generous people that they practically rain down sweets and bonbons and packaged yummies on the children who come ringing doorbells on October 31st.
The problem for mothers like me is that we don't want our children stuffed with Halloween candy, yet nor do we want to deprive our children of the enjoyment – and for them, the point — of the holiday.
Had I retained my ancestors' Puritan austerity, this would be an easy conundrum to solve: No fun! No candy! But clearly the stock has softened since then, or at least in this generation, its maternal heart has.
Who can fault neighbors who urge indulgently, “Go ahead, take a couple of handfuls!” to the fairies and witches and Star Wars storm troopers and rubber-faced Munch-screamers who flock to the doors and thrust out already-groaning sacks and plastic jack o' lanterns? The national script calls for adults to give, and give generously. It calls for children to collect, and collect greedily.
But have you noticed that the script is blank just at the point when the children get home, wriggle out of their costumes, and fall upon the loot like sharks upon chum? I mean, what then?
Over the years, we've applied various regimes, none of which has been quite satisfactory. First, the rule was that each child could eat a few pieces on Halloween night, and then next morning all the remaining candy would go off to Daddy's office.
As the children grew, this struck everyone (even me) as unduly meager, so the rule evolved into one that allowed each child to gorge on Halloween, and then give the rest away.
Later it mutated into a scheme wherein the children keep their ages-worth in sweets. Then they got to keep twice their age in pieces of candy, though as the older children moved into double-digits this began to seem so liberal as to be pointless. So now what? I'm at a loss.
Meanwhile the black cats and spider rings and bags of candy corn are making their inexorable march towards the front displays of supermarkets and drug stores, and the children of America are rummaging around in their dress-up boxes.
Mercifully, I suppose there's still time to come up with a clever new way of managing the annual sugar frenzy. What would you suggest?
Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of the The Wall Street Journal. Her Examiner column appears on Thursday.