USA Today, October 30, 2003

    Sophisticated Halloweens stifle kids' imaginations

    By Bruce Kluger

    Thirty-seven years ago today, I still hadn't decided what I would
    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
    bath towels was my cape. I can't recall what I used for the bat insignia on my chest;
    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.

    Of course, the sweet irony of my slapdash costume wouldn't emerge until I finally
    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 onlinea 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
    accessoriesactivities 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
    bandwagonwe 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 callfor both of us.

    Still, I took a good lesson from that experiencenamely, 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 screenwith 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, kidsthis
    year we make our own costumes."

    Sure, your children will bellyache about such a corny, antiquated endeavor. But,
    thankfully, some things never change.