Halloween etiquette: What's too sexy for a costume or too old for trick-or-treating?

How old is too old for trick-or-treating? Is that costume your child wants to wear too scary — or too sexy — for a six-year-old? Parenting and etiquette experts offer some thoughts on the delicate mores of Halloween.

While there may not be rules, common sense could be a good guide

How old is too old for trick-or-treating? Is that costume your child wants to wear too scary — or too sexy — for a six-year-old?

And what about the office Halloween antics — do you have to dress up, or can you just ignore the whole affair if wearing a witch's hat at your desk isn't your thing?

As with so much else in life, there are no ironclad answers when it comes to questions of Halloween etiquette.

"There are no real rules around Halloween because up until the last, I'd say, 15 or maybe 20 years, it wasn't really that big a deal," says Louise Fox, owner of The Etiquette Ladies. When in doubt, she suggests, just use common sense.

Still, Fox, along with parenting experts and a horror magazine editor, were willing to offer thoughts on some of the conundrums that can come up around Halloween.

How young is too young for Halloween? That might vary for some kids - and their parents. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

What's too young or too old for trick-or-treating?

Janice Biehn, editor of ParentsCanada magazine, favours trick-or-treating for elementary school children. For some in junior kindergarten, that means dressing up as a ghost or goblin and knocking on doors as early as age three. But babes in arms? Biehn is less sure.

"It is a nice way to be out and around and experiencing the community, so I guess when you put that wholesome spin on it then it's OK to take out your baby. But it can be a little daunting for a lot of kids under one so I wouldn't panic if you missed the first year."

By Grade 9, Biehn suggests, children are too old, and could instead help hand out candy at home or go to a party with friends.

For her part, Fox suggests age limits are up to a parent's judgment.

But for mommy blogger Andrea Traynor, editor in chief of, the idea of an age limit is "crazy."

"If you've got the cutest little infant Halloweener that you want to show off, go for it. You're 16 and still want in on the action? I don't see a problem with it," says Traynor, who would rather hand out an extra KitKat than see teens smashing pumpkins because they have nothing else to do.

Candy for a costume-less trick-or-treater?

Probably still best to dole it out, particularly if it's an older teen and you don't want your house egged. But you could probably serve up a broad hint at the same time. 

"If they show up at your door without a costume, I think it's perfectly fair to say: 'Ooh, what's your costume?' " says Traynor.

"I would make them justify their lack of a costume, but at the end of the day I would still give them something if they're willing to do something … I don't need an egg at my door."

But if it's a younger child, it might be wiser to go easy. Perhaps the child's family can't afford a costume.

"If it's a young person, then they may not really have the wherewithal to put a costume together," says Biehn.

How scary is too scary? It could depend on your age, and where you will be wearing the costume. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Can a costume be too scary?

Not for Dave Alexander, editor in chief of horror magazine Rue Morgue, where "anything goes" at the office, And at an adult Halloween party, total gore is fine in his mind. 

He might not go that far with little kids. "But I also think kids are fine with more scares and more gore than most people think."

There are ways, he suggests, to tone down the gore and make a costume that is less upsetting for some people. That might mean adding a dash of humour or using green goo rather than fake red blood.

"There are ways that you can balance those more adult horror elements with the more whimsical, fun elements of Halloween," he says.

What about too sexy?

Traynor says this is an issue.

"Just because it's Halloween doesn't mean your tween should leave the house looking any more inappropriate than she would for school.

Mona Gleason, a professor in the University of British Columbia's faculty of education, says there are sexist and inappropriate costumes out there, noting for example the ones for sexy nurses or tarted-up princesses.

"Sexualizing young kids is not appropriate," she says.

"We're terrified as a culture about what might happen to little kids if they are put at risk in social situations. So why would we send a little girl out on Halloween night dressed up like a woman?"

And it's not just a question of what little girls are wearing.

"There are very stereotypical boys' costumes: the firefighters, the police officers," says Gleason. "What if a little boy wants to dress up like a princess or mermaid? If little boys can't go out on Halloween dressed the way they want, that also sends a strong message."

Halloween candy isn't nutritious, but it will find a lot more favour among trick-or-treaters than a box of raisins.

Is it OK to hand out healthy treats?

Perhaps, but not if you really want to keep in the spirit of the night.

"Halloween is one of those times when you've got to let kids be kids," says Traynor. "If you're really concerned about sugar, just stick to the mini-sized treats."

Alexander and Biehn, who favours little chocolate bars, concur.

"There was nothing worse on Halloween than getting a box of raisins," says Alexander.

"Part of the fun of Halloween is to get the sugary junk food. And then I think what's more important is there's somebody on the other end when you get home to make sure that you're not going hog-wild with it."

But what about handing out toothbrushes?

There are mixed views on that.

Alexander remembers trick-or-treating in Edmonton and thinking it was "really cool to get a toothbrush or little erasers, stuff like that."

But the dentist in Biehn's childhood neighbourhood left a bad taste in her mouth with he dropped a toothbrush in her loot bag. "That was just such a killjoy."

Should you hand out the treats individually, or let the kids dive in?

Generally speaking, handing it out seems to be the favoured way. Kids can learn from the encounter, suggests Alexander.

"It's a very good opportunity to learn manners in the way you interact with strangers," he says, noting it's a time to say "Thank you," and not get bent out of shape if the candy being offered isn't something you like.

"That's the way life is. You don't always get exactly what you want and, you know, you're going to have transactions with strangers every day and it's very important to be polite and thankful."

For adults, what about costumes at work?

Consider the office environment, says Fox, and ask around about what's appropriate if you're new to the job.

"Don't wing it. Don't come in as vampire at the bank, or a bank robber at the bank."

And, she suggests, don't feel you have to dress up if you don't want to.

"There really are no real rules written about it, but I think it's still optional. And if you don't feel a sense of fun in doing it, then don't do it and nobody's going to punish you for that."