Tricks and a Few Unexpected Treats

Pierre Van Zyl

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We went trick-or-treating for fifteen minutes last night. That’s right, fifteen minutes.
Let me preface this by specifying that my children are four and a half and two and a half years old. So clearly it was never destined to be a long outing. Last year we made our way up and down most of our street. Walking was still fairly new to Teeny, my little guy, and the whole trick-or-treating concept was new to Bean, my older son (we had lived into a condo building until several months earlier), so progress was slow. As our first Halloween living in our house, it presented a fantastic opportunity to introduce ourselves to the neighbors. While we stood talking to the other adults, Teeny quickly learned that he could continue helping himself to handfuls of candy from their bowls and that, while his parents admonished him, the other adults thought it was adorable and encouraged him to take even more. 
This year, both boys understood and remembered (or at least Bean did) enough about Halloween to spend weeks and months anticipating its arrival and plotting their costumes. Superheroes and Pixar characters are a BIG deal in our house. On any given day, Ben and Teeny will cycle through several different costumes depending on what they are playing, what movie they have watched most recently, or how the stars are aligned. Sometimes they want to match one another exactly and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they want to be superheroes from the same team or characters from the same movie and sometimes they don’t. Throughout September and October, they announced their intended Halloween costumes daily. (Well, it was mostly Bean announcing and Teeny chiming in, “Me too!”). Each day’s announcement reflected whatever costumes they were wearing at that particular moment.
Wanting to avoid controversy and angst (theirs and my own), I decided to wait until October 31 to elicit a final decision. We own practically all of the suits, whether as true costumes or pajamas, that they could want to wear, so I reasoned that that day they could make a final decision, get dressed, and head out for some trick-or-treating. Early in evening my husband and I compared expectations for the night and agreed that we would likely stick to our street, only venturing further if it were still early and things were going exceedingly well.
What I failed to do, in leaving the final costume determination until the last minute, was the prep work of planning what layers would be worn under or over said costumes and how they would be integrated into the boys’ understanding of the night’s plans. When I arrived home from work, Bean was wearing his Buzz Lightyear suit and Teeny his Captain America shirt. Both boys indicated that these were the outfits they intended to wear trick-or-treating. There was a minor kerfuffle over the dictum that no further candy would be allowed until after they had eaten dinner, but we got through it and began preparations to leave the house. Teeny made the game-time decision to also dress as Buzz Lightyear, so after a diaper change, my husband put him into his Buzz pajamas. The evening seemed to be progressing smoothly.
But here’s the thing: we live in New England. Unless they had been nestled into the thick, furry monkey and lion costumes that they wore two years ago – notably the last time that Mommy got to choose their costumes – there was no way that they were going to leave the house without sweatshirts/fleeces/jackets or some combination of layers. Teeny allowed himself to be wrangled into a jacket, his biggest complaint being that his shirtsleeves were pulled up inside. But Bean was harder to pacify. We tried a fleece underneath his suit; the mock neck bothered him. We tried a jacket, but he grew upset that it covered his suit (even though I pointed out that he didn’t have to wear it fully zipped or with the hood up, which he insisted on doing). We moved to a sweatshirt under the suit, but this also failed to pass the comfort test. When I threatened to keep him home while his brother and father went out in quest of candy, he acquiesced and allowed that a specific sweatshirt – obviously not the one that I had suggested – might be tolerable.
With renewed optimism we left our front porch. The neighbors across the street, a middle-aged man and woman with whom the boys are quite friendly, sat on their front steps awaiting trick-or-treaters. But as we approached, the boys suddenly grew shy. A whispered “trick or treat” had to be coaxed from their lips, their hands guided toward the offered candy bowl. “Want go home now,” Teeny said, looking up at us with wide, serious eyes.
As we headed down the steps, he changed his mind and we continued on to the house of another neighbor with whom the boys are close. As we crossed the street, we speculated excitedly as to whether her dog might also be in costume. But once again, up on the porch, they withdrew. They muttered “trick-or-treat,” accepted some candy, and pulled us on our way.
The same scene played out at one additional house, with each boy clutching one of my legs. This time they both expressed a desire to go home, and we complied. I felt surprised, frustrated, let down – both for myself and for them – and, frankly, confused. They, it seemed, were overtired, overwhelmed, or just not that into this year’s Halloween.
Back in our living room, they became different children. With glee, they emptied their plastic jack-o-lantern buckets and surveyed their haul: about five pieces of candy each. Excitedly they requested permission to eat some and then savored – and even shared – their treats. With all of the animation and enthusiasm that had been missing during our short trek, they played with toys and gallivanted around the house. My husband and I offered them the opportunity to go back out to visit a few more houses, but they happily declined. There was no more than the usual amount of fussing when bedtime was announced, and shortly after 8pm they were settled in to sleep.
I also took to my bed. “I’m just done with this day,” I said to my husband. “I want to read and go to sleep.” Our street had turned quiet so we shut out the porch lights and went to bed. I slept, but did not feel rejuvenated this morning. And I have spent much of the day rehashing yesterday’s events.
By lunchtime today, I had settled on my own shortcomings as a mother as the explanation for our failed trick-or-treating expedition. In seeking to avoid controversy, I had failed to provide structure and to set expectations for the boys surrounding their attire and behavior for the evening. They (like their mother) don’t always adapt well to sudden changes, and waiting until the last minute to determine a final costume and the associated layers had set them up to be discombobulated. 
But in recounting our evening for a coworker, I heard myself saying, “No, it wasn’t great…. Well, actually, it might have been a success.” Once we were back at home, they had a grand old time. And they were absolutely thrilled with the few pieces of candy they had collected. They had built up the anticipation of an event but then found themselves in a situation that they actually didn’t enjoy. So they voiced their opinions, changed course, and ultimately enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

They, it turns out, had actually been the ones to navigate a rather abrupt change, leaving their mom in the dust struggling to adapt. Perhaps I’m actually the one who should learn from their example.