Halloween is only four days away. Your children must decide NOW what they're going to be. If they can't make up their minds, you must decide for them.

Sunday morning is no time to hear that little Annie wants to be a figure from the Bayeux Tapestry. Doesn't she know how hard it is to find a wimple on a weekend?

Little Jimmy says he wants to be a printed circuit board, does he? Tell him he may not. If he doesn't pick something simpler, tell him you will send him out as a bag of trash.

A couple of holes at the bottom of a Hefty bag and some crumpled-up newspaper and -- voila! -- he's the superhero Trashboy. (Yes, he's the superhero none of the other superheroes wants to sit next to, but if Jimmy had made his intentions clear a couple of weeks ago, he could have been Batman.)

What I'm saying is this: The youth of America must not be mollycoddled. We've coddled their mollies far too long, and what has it gotten us? Backward baseball caps and "Saturday Night Live" lip-syncers.

Why, when I was a boy, I was one of two things every Halloween: I was either Groucho Marx or Count Dracula. Both utilized my most precious bit of dress-up clothing: a pair of tails. No, not tails like on a lizard, dummy. Tails, like on a topcoat. Some horn-rimmed glasses and a greasepaint moustache and I was Groucho. Some rubber fangs and a trickle of fake blood from the corner of my mouth and I was Dracula.

Does anyone dress up as Dracula today? Or Groucho? Are we losing touch with the old ways, the good ways?

I'm sorry. I was channeling this year's hot Halloween character: the Curmudgeon. The costume is a cardigan with leather elbow patches and a pair of fake bushy eyebrows.

But this last-minute Halloween angst is a problem. Tuesday at the Party Warehouse in Silver Spring, the anxiety was almost palpable.

"You see all the frantic parents coming in with kids who just don't know what to be," said Party Warehouse's Shannon Olsen. "They're just throwing things together at that point."

I walked back to the costumes, where I approached a shopper named Trish Sutherland. I said I was looking for kids who were having trouble picking out just the right Halloween costume.

"Does that sound like anybody you know?" 8-year-old Rachel Neave piped up. She was talking about her friend and gymnastics buddy Laura Sutherland, Trish's 8-year-old daughter.

Laura, her mother said, has been contemplating being a nerd, a witch, a vampire . . .

"I don't want to be a nerd," Laura said. "No."

"She wants to be something creative, but she doesn't know what that is," Trish said. "I said, 'Today. We've got to do it today.' "

Personally, I think Laura should be a vampire, since she's missing all of her front teeth: "I vant to gum your blood." (For her part, Rachel is going to be a sorceress.)

Some adults have trouble making up their minds, too, said T.J. Pekin, owner of nearby Costumes Creative, which stocks 15,000 costumes, from astronaut to dromedary.

"They know what they don't want," said T.J. of these undecided voters. "They know they don't want to wear makeup or a wig or tights or a dress. As we narrow down all the don'ts, as Sherlock Holmes said, 'We're left with the answer.' "

And sometimes the answer is Sherlock Holmes. Cloak, pipe and deerstalker hat can be yours for the weekend for $84.

We're not costume renters in my family. We're costume makers.

Usually this time of year, My Lovely Wife is hidden behind a cloud of organza and tulle, cursing like a stevedore as she painstakingly re-creates Glinda the Good Witch's gown or confronts the unique challenges inherent in constructing a mermaid tail a person can walk in.

This year, she decreed that our two daughters had to decide by Oct. 1 what they were going to be for Halloween and had to cobble together their costumes themselves.

Of course, they blew that deadline and then scrolled through various options -- English wench, "glamorous" witch, Hogwarts student, Fantana (of soft drink fame) -- before deciding on professional tennis player and Miss America.

Frankly, I don't care what kids dress up as, as long as they yell, "Trick or treat," then invite me to smell their feet. (I always decline, but it's nice to be asked.)

Then I give them something good to eat.

But not as good as Michael Tabor of Takoma Park. Mike is an organic farmer who last year gave trick-or-treaters in his neighborhood a choice between candy and apples. And what did most of the youngsters choose?

Candy, what do you think? Last I checked, we were still in America, even the people in Takoma Park. Finding something healthy in your Halloween bag is like finding a halogen light bulb. How did this get in here?

This year, Mike is giving out only apples, along with seven-day passes to the YMCA and a note that warns of the dangers of too much sugar consumption. Talk about a buzz kill.

So, what will the pros be dressed as this Sunday? Shannon?

"I haven't decided yet."

Ah. T.J.?

"I don't decide till the night of Halloween," he said. "Probably about 15 minutes before I leave the door, I grab my costume."

Now, that is scary.

E-mail: kellyj@washpost.com. Mail: The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Phone: 202-334-5129.