October 28, 2015

Last year, the U.S. census bureau estimated that about 40 million children, ages 5 to 14, would trick-or-treat in the U.S. What values does this time-honored practice teach?

At its core, trick-or-treating reinforces taking, not giving. The practice is traced to the Celtic period when people would offer food and drink to placate demons and witches. Over time, the practice evolved. Eventually people dressed like these dreadful creatures to trick and scare people into giving them treats.

A 1935 editorial in the Spokane Daily Chronicle called trick-or-treating a miniature “racket” and a form of petty “blackmail” that the public should not stand for. While this characterization is extreme, it has some truth. Knocking on doors and demanding goodies with real or even symbolic threats of tricks can breed selfishness and entitlement. At face value it’s not a positive practice.

Trick-or-treating also runs counter to many religious teachings. The Restored Church of God ministry points out that trick-or-treating teaches children to beg for things instead of earning them through hard work. Some Rabbis have discouraged a similar practice on Passover where children pretend to “steal” a piece of dessert and later demand rewards for its return.

There is research to support that even playful activity, such as video games, can influence behavior for the worse. What effect does it have to teach our children that demanding and begging for things, even if only as a joke, can reap a sweet reward?

There’s clearly a larger societal impact. For example, a recent Chicago Tribune article joked about the sin of giving bad Halloween candy: “Any person who, on Halloween, knowingly gives out candy corn or Bit-O-Honey or Mary Janes — which resemble fossilized space alien baby turds wrapped in orange or black waxed paper — shall be thrown into a rat pit, alone.” This is tragically funny because it reflects actual attitudes and expectations.

Of course, trick-or-treating can also have a positive effect. It can teach kids to be confident and unafraid to meet their neighbors, thus helping build a sense of community. Parents can also turn to projects such as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund trick-or-treat campaign to collect coins for charity instead of candy to teach children the importance of charitable giving.

Celebrating the selfless act of giving this Halloween would be the real treat.

Eliyahu Federman writes on religion, culture and law.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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