It's getting to be that time of year again: when jack-o'-lanterns glow and mummies and witches roam the streets. But there is one Halloween tradition that really gives me the chills: Jimmy Kimmel's annual candy prank.
Every Halloween for the past six years, ABC's late-night talk show host has encouraged viewers to tell their children, on the morning after the holiday, that they have eaten the kids' entire candy stash. Parents record their children's reactions and send the videos to Kimmel, who broadcasts some of the clips on his show. The audience laughs at the children, who variously throw tantrums, go into silent shock or collapse in sobbing heaps on the floor — before the parents let them in on the joke and give back the candy.
Isn't this all in good fun? What are a few tears, when the kids realize soon enough that it's just a gag, right?
I have a different view. In my opinion as a longtime child psychiatrist, the children in the clips — most of whom appear to be between 3 and 7 years old — are reacting not so much to the temporary loss of candy but to a sense of betrayal that will linger long after their parents own up to the joke.
For young children, Halloween is about more than just stockpiling sweets in quantities Mom and Dad don't allow most days of the year. It's also a first step toward the independence many of them are beginning to crave. They pick out a costume, turn into Batman or Wonder Woman for a few hours, ring the doorbells of neighbors at night and get something they love simply by asking for it.
But they are still very young. Their bonds with their parents are built on trust — trust that Mom and Dad would never do anything to hurt them. And it can feel like a violation of that trust to hear that Mom and Dad have stolen and eaten all of their hard-won spoils, the stuff they went to bed dreaming about.
Small kids also have rigid moral codes. Stealing is wrong. People are either good or bad. When they hear that their parents have stolen from them, they may wonder: Does that make my parents bad? Does it make me bad?
Of course, this isn't exactly child abuse. But many kids will feel this particular prank as an emotional gut-punch, a breach of their parents' love. When we consider that the sole aim of this betrayal seems to be the amusement of other people, in this case millions of strangers watching on TV, we've got to question the values of all the adults involved.
It's no surprise that most of the kids voice anger or are convulsed by sobs. Even more heartbreaking are the quietly anxious ones, who look as though they have had to forgive their parents' trespasses more than once. "It's all right — I just want you to feel happy," says one little boy, turning from his mother. "You wanna go finish your cereal?" another mother asks after breaking the news. "Yes, please," wimpers her daughter, trying to hold back tears.
Often the clips show a "follow up" where the parents confess and give back the candy. The more confident kids say, "That was mean, Daddy!" The less secure laugh hysterically through their tears, clearly trying to process the new and confusing idea that "Mommy tricked me." One boy continues to sob "I don't want to look at you" after his mother tells him she was kidding.
Many parents may already struggle, in other ways, to be sensitive to their children. Celebrities should not use their power to egg parents on or to appeal to their vanity by asking them to emotionally manipulate their kids for a chance to be on TV.
Tricks are part of Halloween, and pranks can be great fun. But a prank is a joke played on someone of equal or higher power. Can you imagine if your supervisor at work pranked you, filmed it and uploaded it to YouTube? Watch the episode of "The Office" where the boss pretends to fire an employee for laughs and then is baffled by her very real tears and anger.
Kimmel has gotten a lot of attention this year since his son was born with a condition requiring open-heart surgery. He spoke out against Obamacare repeal efforts that would strip coverage from people, like his son, with preexisting conditions. I am hopeful that the same compassion his son's illness inspired for sick Americans will spark his empathy for all the kids who wake up Nov. 1 to face parents whose casual cruelty, however short-lasting, eats away at the trust small children need to feel secure.
Anyone can take candy from a baby. The question is whether we should feel good about it. "I'm very good at making kids cry, it turns out," Kimmel chuckled when urging parents to participate one year. This year, I ask Kimmel to consider retiring the prank and encouraging his viewers to be kind to their children instead.