When Halloween rolls around again on Saturday, most kids in the Washington area will put on costumes and take to the streets to go trick-or-treating. It's an American tradition that goes back many, many years.
Unfortunately, in recent years Halloween has gotten a bad reputation. A few kids have received poisoned candy or apples with razor blades or broken glass hidden inside them. These incidents have been serious enough to make adults worry about the safety of trick-or-treating.
Safety experts advise kids not to eat any unwrapped trick-or-treat candy.
Some hospitals provide free X-ray programs to the community at Halloween time. Technicians examine Halloween candy and fruit to make sure nothing dangerous has been added to it.
Halloween also raises the problem of being out on the streets on your own. Whether you live in the city or in the suburbs, it is not a good idea to wander around neighborhoods that aren't familiar to you.
Many families now go trick-or-treating by car. Parents often walk along with groups of costumed kids, too.
People have come up with different ways to make Halloween safe but still keep it fun. In one Bethesda neighborhood, all the kids gather in a dead-end street for a Halloween party and costume parade. They get candy at the party instead of going door to door to collect it. Adults at the party also give prizes for the best costumes.
If you're planning to go trick-or-treating this year, now is the time to review some "street smart" practices. These habits will help keep you safe every time you're away from home -- and may come in handy on Halloween night, as well.
When you're away from home, don't talk to strangers. Most people who strike up casual conversations are simply being friendly. But some people aren't.
To be on the safe side when you're out on your own, it's best to avoid talking to people you don't know, no matter how nice they may seem to be. You don't have to be rude, but you may have to be firm.
If someone asks you for directions, tell them, "I'm sorry, I don't know." If someone offers to help you -- perhaps by offering to carry your books or a bulky package, say, "No, thank you," and walk away. If someone asks you for help in a medical emergency, go to the nearest store and find an adult, or find a police officer to send for help.
Don't approach someone in a car who asks you a question. Never, ever consider getting into a car with a stranger.
Even on Halloween, try to get home before dark. If you have to come home late, try to get a ride with someone you know, take a taxi or walk with another person. Walking two by two or in a group is always safer than walking alone.
Where possible, walk on well-traveled streets with businesses, shops and busy bus stops rather than quiet, empty streets. Know where you are going in advance, and avoid streets that have dark parking lots, vacant lots or poorly lit areas on them. Don't take "short cuts" through back yards, alleys or vacant lots.
Will you be collecting pennies for UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) this year? Many children do. In the interests of keeping trick-or-treaters safe, UNICEF has come up with some safety tips for the spooky holiday. Here they are: :: Never trick-or-treat alone. Go with a friend or in a group and bring along an adult to share in the fun. :: Never wear masks that block your view. Decorate your costume with reflective tape. :: Wait until you get home before eating your treats. Any unwrapped candy should be thrown out. :: Keep your UNICEF collection carton in your trick-or-treat bag or wear it around your neck. :: Be sure to brush your teeth after eating candy.
Here's one more important reminder: Have fun!Tips for Parents
Some children's books about street safety include games or quizzes kids can do to reinforce street safety habits. Discussing Halloween safety practices provides a good opportunity to check out one of these books from the library, or buy one for yourself, and do the activities with your family. Two good books on the subject are: "On My Own: The Kids' Self Care Book" by Lynette Long (Acropolis Books; $7.95) and "Play It Safe: The Kids' Guide to Personal Safety and Crime Prevention" by Kathy S. Kyte (Knopf; $5.95). In "Safe and Sound: A Parents' Guide to Child Protection" by Roderick Townley (Simon & Schuster; $16.95), one chapter lists 20 "What if?" questions; for example, "What if someone in a car says, 'Hi. Your mom asked me to pick you up . . .' The book suggests strategies kids can learn to protect themselves on the street. Catherine O'Neill is a free-lance children's writer based in Baltimore.