Halloween is just around the corner. This is the holiday when Americans typically buy the most candy. Like a lot of kids, a major part of much of my childhood was essentially a quest to acquire as much candy as I possibly could get my hands on and Halloween was the Holy Grail.
I loved dressing up and trick-or-treating. My mother devised a spectacular witch’s costume that never fail to win a prize. Both my brother and I won first place at the annual junior high school contest with it.
With more than a little irony, my mother had used a black dress and shoes, belonging to my grandmother (her mother-in-law) as the foundation of the outfit. She added a cape with a jack-o- lantern emblazoned on the back, a tall witch’s hat, the wartiest witch’s mask she could find, and a wig fashioned from an old mop. My father never cared for the costume, possibly because the final product was basically a mildly exaggerated caricature of my actual grandmother (his mother). Given the relationship between my mother and grandmother, this was undoubtedly how my mother envisioned her.
The witch’s costume was too elaborate for trick-or-treating, so I wore those commercial costumes that came in a box. I never liked how they had a picture of the character you were portraying displayed across the front. Even I knew that Zorro never wore a shirt that had a picture of himself on it. They also had those uncomfortable hard plastic masks, that were impossible to see through and made breathing difficult. They were held in place by flimsy black elastic bands with metal clips on the ends, that never seemed to make it past the front steps.
Every year there were always rumors that some big kids would knock you down and take your candy— kids like my archenemy, Marlin Hutchingson. Marlin and his gang of thugs always dressed like hobos. These were popular costumes among children whose parents grew up during the depression. I never saw a real hobo, but I knew what they looked like, thanks to Red Skelton’s portrayal of Freddie the Freeloader. The classic hobo costume was made up of raggedy oversized clothes, a rope belt, a battered fedora, and a stick with a red bandana bundle. To appear as if you hadn’t shaved, you’d smear cork soot on your face. Marlin, who looked like he needed a shave, since the third grade, could forgo this step. While most of us carried cute little plastic trick-or-treat bags with black cats them, Marlin and his ilk preferred ratty king-sized pillowcases, which could double as giant blackjacks, when needed.
Back in elementary school, Marlin’s lunch always came from the candy machine. I shouldn’t talk since in high school a root beer and Butterfinger was my standard bill of fare. But even as a young child, Marlin was constantly eating candy, so I wasn’t surprised when a recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry showed that children who ate sweets and chocolate every day were much more likely to be violent as adults. Ten year-olds who ate candy daily were significantly more likely to have been convicted for violence crimes at age 24. The relationship between sweets and violence remained even after controlling for other factors. According to lead researcher Simon Moore, “Giving children sweets and chocolate regularly may stop them learning how to wait to obtain something they want. Not being able to defer gratification may push them towards more impulsive behavior, which is strongly associated with delinquency.”
In the 1960s, Walter Mischel at Stanford University gave four-year-olds a marshmallow and promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Only about a third of the children could wait. As adolescents, the children who could wait, were rated as better adjusted and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. This is an enormous difference. Chidlren who were future oriented, benefited tremendously more from their education that those who focused on immediate pleasure. A similar experiment, using presents, found that children who could not delay gratifications were routinely described more “irritable”, aggressive, and whiny”, while those showing restraint, were rated as more “intelligent”, “resourceful”, and “competent”.
In Walden II, psychologist B.F. Skinner’s book about an ideal society based on the principles of behaviorism, young children were given lollipops, dipped in powdered sugar, to wear around their necks, to develop self-control. They were told that they could eat the lollipops later, but only if it hadn’t been touched. These children were expected to learn to ignore the temptation of the candy. Skinner’s protagonist says “Some of us learn control, more or less by accident. The rest of us go all our lives … blaming our failure on being born the wrong way.” Of course such training would never work with kids like Marlin, who would just jerk your lollipop from around your neck, saving his own for later.
Forbidden lollipops may not be the answer, but we indulgent parents and grandparents, who enjoy immediately giving our children everything they desire, have to think twice about whether we are actually doing this for our own benefit and are inadvertently putting the next generation at risk.
Besides candy bullies, I remember being afraid of crazed neighbors, who might hide foreign objects in apples or contaminate candy with deadly poisons. We all heard the urban legend about the kid who, in the dark, grabbed some candy right out of his trick-or-treat bag and ended up biting into a Gillette double edge razor blade.
Sociologist Joel Best, from University of Delaware, researched major newspapers back to 1958 and found fewer than 90 cases of alleged candy tampering. There were only a dozen reported cases over the past 20 years. Most turned out to be false alarms or hoaxes, like the recent story of boy in the runaway helium balloon.
Best did identify five suspicious deaths, initially believed to be related to tampering. In three cases, investigators found no evidence of foul play. In one case, however, a father was convicted and eventually executed for lacing his son’s candy with cyanide. In the last instance, a family covered up a child’s accidental ingestion of an uncle’s drug stash, blaming it on tainted Halloween candy. So despite all the psychopathic killers lurking about, the greatest danger, it seems, unsurprisingly comes from our own families.
All this doesn’t mean that such things can’t happen, and a little prudence never hurts. The Red Cross recommends having adults inspect all candy and advises discarding any open or unwrapped items.
Of course, the greatest Halloween dangers are the average parent rushing home to spend the holiday with their children and distracted drivers texting on the road. This year make sure your kids are alert to these potential Halloween monsters and have a safe holiday.
Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (http://newsandtribune.com/)