USA Today, October 30, 2003
Sophisticated Halloweens stifle kids' imaginations
By Bruce Kluger
wear for Halloween. That announcement wouldn't come until just
a few hours before the sky darkened on Oct. 31, when,
suddenly inspired by my favorite TV show, I settled on being
Rushing into my bedroom, I quickly pulled on my blue-gray ski
pajamas, followed by a long pair of socks yanked up to mid-calf.
A black ski mask folded up to just beneath my nose served as a
replica of Batman's headgear, and one of my mother's large
but at 10 years of age, it wasn't beyond me to draw it directly onto the pajama top
with a Magic Marker. A permanent Magic Marker.
made it out of the house and onto the street. The neighborhood was crawling with
pint-sized Batmen. Rather than feel embarrassed by my apparent lack of originality,
I was elated and dashed off to join the sudden army of candy-seeking Caped
All that fun. All those towels.
To say that the Halloween industry is a different beast today than it was when I was
a child is something of an understatement. According to the National Retail
Federation, Halloween costume shopping has surpassed the $1 billion mark, with
sales this year expected to jump 6% over those in 2002. But along with the spike in
numbers comes an equally significant transformation in the ritual of Halloween
shopping, primarily as a result of the Internet. This year 11.3% of costume
shoppers said they planned to do their buying online—a figure sure to increase as
more homes become wired to the Internet. Lost in the process will be the age-old
practice of aisle roaming, trying on hats and masks, and checking for sizes and
accessories—activities that were often as fun as trick-or- treating itself.
More troubling, however, is that as we make the effort to mechanize our lives—
which includes securely buckling our kids into their seats on the Internet
bandwagon—we unwittingly are taking away from them the one thing that not even
the best and fastest computer can provide: their imaginations. More than just a
night of playing dress-up, Halloween is an opportunity for parents to learn a little bit
about the way their kids think and for children themselves to discover the true
breadth of their ingenuity. I'm convinced it's not too late to get that back, but it's
going to take some work.
"We don't allow our children to have as much creativity as when we were kids," says
Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute of New York University's Child
Study Center. "Everything for kids today is more sophisticated. Halloween costumes
are slicker; toys are more complex; the special effects in movies are incredibly
realistic. As a result, why would children want to make their own Halloween
costumes when they can get that kind of realism online or in the store instead?"
I know what Gallagher means. Two years ago, my older daughter, Bridgette,
announced that she wanted to go trick-or-treating as a witch. Although we found an
already-assembled (and audaciously overpriced) black satin witch costume in a
neighborhood shop, Bridgette decided that she wanted a broomstick just like the
one in a book we'd been reading. That was all the encouragement I needed:
Together, we bought a standard-issue broom from the grocery store, cut the
factory-binding from the bristles and, using twine, retied the loose straw into a large
Then we bought a long stick from the hardware store, painted it black and attached
the broom head. Bridgette and I were thrilled with our final product— but only
momentarily. Just before Halloween night, a friend from out of town paid a visit and
brought Bridgette a gift: the Harry Potter Nimbus 2000 Broom from Mattel—
complete with a molded handle for comfortable riding, vibrating action and whoosh-
and-swoop sound effects. It looked exactly like the one in the movie.
Ultimately, Bridgette showed fidelity to our arts-and-crafts efforts, taking our
homemade broom with her on our neighborhood rounds. But I must tell you: It was a
tough call—for both of us.
Still, I took a good lesson from that experience—namely, that raising children in the
new millennium always will be a matter of choosing between the new and the
outdated, the convenient and the painstaking, the computerized and the creative. If
we really want to keep our kids' minds as nimble as their mouse-clicking fingers, we
have to find a balance.
For example, we needn't feel pangs of guilt when we park our kids in front of the
PC, provided we occasionally boot up a blank page for them in an art or word-
processing program, then ask them to fill the screen—with anything. Granted, this
exercise never will compete with the wizardry of a Disney adventure game or the
easy access to Sesame Street's online coloring pages. But at least we can take
comfort in knowing that whatever our kids concoct on the page, it came from the
pop-pop of their brain synapses, as opposed to the double click of a mouse.
Same thing with movies. As a reviewer of children's home entertainment, I see
firsthand how studios bend over backward to cram DVDs with interactive extras—
activities designed specifically to get couch-potato tots on their feet and thinking.
The new collector's edition of Finding Nemo, for instance, includes such bonus
materials as a virtual aquarium, an electronic encyclopedia and "Fisharades" game.
Now, that's edutainment.
And, yes, maybe one Halloween in the near future we can try to buck the
technological trend by instituting a new house rule: "Log off the Internet, kids—this
year we make our own costumes."
Sure, your children will bellyache about such a corny, antiquated endeavor. But,
thankfully, some things never change.