"I hate the spiders! Everyone puts up spiders! But pumpkins are good."
"Yeah. I want my mom to get one of those big inflatable pumpkins."
"Cool. You should get an inflatable black cat, too."
"Mummy, could we -- ?"
"Never," said the driver of the loaded minivan with seraphic calm.
Once upon a time, she had hemmed and hawed and evaded these annual questions. Personally, she didn't much like Halloween. It was fun to help her children put together costumes, and she enjoyed seeing little ones getting a kick out of trick-or-treating, but the intense cultural emphasis on the holiday gave her the creeps, as did the expanding vogue for grisly decoration. She'd limited her own home's adornment to child-carved jack-o'-lanterns and maybe a gourd or two.
Still, for a long time she hadn't wanted to seem openly unfun or uncool when the subject came up in front of other children, so she'd generally stalled until her children's playmates had got out of the vehicle. Long years of driving had, however, cured her of this inhibition.
"Just a few decorations?" the girl pursued. "Just ghosts made from lollipops and Kleenex."
"Not a chance," she said pleasantly.
The child, unsurprised and untroubled, shrugged and turned to her neighbor. She said: "Our neighbors used to have a skeleton pirate with eyes that lit up red when you went near it."
"It groaned too. Aaaaaaghhhhrrr!"
"I want a cat," another girl said wistfully. "A fluffy black kitty."
"You already have a fluffy black dog."
"Yeah, but cats are so soft and nice. I love their tails."
"We might get a hamster," said a girl who knew better. "Or a turtle. Turtles are cute!"
A small, tolerant smile passed over the driver's lips. Here was another subject that had once been elastic and adaptive but which was now, in the parental mind, settled law.
"Turtles are a pain, though," put in another child. "You have to get them tested for salmonella, and you have to wash your hands every time you touch them."
"Plus, they don't do anything. They just sit on a rock."
"Mummy, when can we get a hamster, anyway?"
"Darling," the driver said, "you know the answer to that."
"Alas no. Never."
"Never? We can never get a hamster?"
"That's right," the adult party said good-naturedly. "We've had rabbits and fish and toads and rats and gerbils, and now we have a dog. We are never going to get a hamster. Or a turtle. Or a cat."
The children were impressed, you could tell. They rode in silence for a while, occasionally pointing out the windows at egregious Halloween displays. But the subject of domesticated animals was irresistible.
"I wish we lived on a farm ... with cows and chickens."
"Our neighbors have chickens for a month. They're, like, rented."
"Oh! I've always wanted chickens! You can rent them?"
"Cool! Oh, Mummy, could we -- "
Uh oh. This was new! The driver and her husband had not yet developed a chicken-rental policy. They had not known they would need one. Years of driving and the existing pet fatwa did not, strangely enough, produce an obvious answer. Fresh eggs might be rather nice.
"Well ... " she said uneasily.
"That means maybe!" the child yelped triumphantly.
And the car rolled on.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.