September 26, 2011

Trick-or-treating as a measure of community cohesion

Those of us who grew up in trick-or-treating times took for granted how much trust and hospitality it took at the community level for the ritual to thrive.

On the kids' side, both they and their parents had to have enough good faith in their neighbors to venture out in the first place. I don't mean that otherwise they might suspect their neighbors of slipping them poisoned candy, apples with razor blades inside, etc. I mean they had to trust that their neighbors would be hospitable enough to buy bags of candy and be on-call that night to hand them out. When people get more cynical (probably the parents here more than the kids), they'll just assume, "Well our neighbors don't give a shit about hospitality anymore, so why bother sending the kids out?"

That creates a positive feedback loop that makes the remaining neighbors drop out too. As fewer kids are sent out each year, a participating neighbor sees that there's less and less of a point to buying candy and waiting near the door, dressing up themselves, and so on. At some point they just keep the front lights off and don't get up to answer the rare knock at the door.

What do the candy-givers get out of the exchange, by the way? It's not a parasitic relationship. They receive the joy from knowing that they belong to a cohesive community -- proven by the fact that all the parents nearby have trusted them to host their kids for a night. The parents back home receive the same joy; obviously they don't get any candy themselves. This is why people participate in any "rite of intensification," i.e. one that confirms and strengthens the feeling of group membership.

However, with fewer neighbors participating, the kids and especially parents are more likely to feel it would be pointless to go out, so they stay home instead. Before long, there are no more trick-or-treaters or candy-givers, everyone believing that everyone else is just too anti-social for the reciprocity to work.

That's more or less what took place from the mid-'90s through today, not coincidentally when all forms of togetherness began dying off. Google Ngrams shows that "trick or treat" shows up in books starting in the 1950s, and really got going during the '60s, when the phrase "trick or treating" also caught on. The golden age of trick-or-treating was of course the later '70s through the early '90s, when we enjoyed two related but independent sources of cohesion -- the peak of our national eminence that lasted from the '50s through the '80s, and the more local protective bonds caused by the rising crime rates from the '60s through the '80s.

I don't know what it felt like on the kids' side (or their parents) as trick-or-treating died off, since the last time I went out was '91 or '92. It must've felt disappointing to hear "Oh, sorry, we didn't buy any candy this year" with each passing Halloween.

But I sure do remember how demoralizing it was on the candy-givers' side. I started passing out candy when I was in 8th or 9th grade in the mid-'90s, and kept at it through high school. The number of kids just plummeted during that time. When I gave it another go last year, there was exactly one kid who stopped by, and I was outside and would've seen anyone else who walked on by.

I somewhat miss the fun you get from scaring little kids before lighting up their faces with a big stash of candy. The really depressing thing, though, was the awareness that no one in my so-called community trusted me or anyone else in the neighborhood to host their kids for a couple hours. Naturally as a thin-skinned high schooler I took that personally, but now I see that it's just part of the larger dissolving of community bonds, along with the disappearance of babysitters, not going to church, and home-schooling.


  1. Have you read John Gatto or John Holt on the subject of home-schooling or unschooling?

    Anyhow, the increase in home-schooling could be explained according to the hypothesis of declining social interaction, but I would attribute it (at least as regards home-schooling here in the UK) to a growing dissatisfaction with the standard of education provided by state schools, and the reluctance of middle class parents of modest means - who can't afford houses in the right areas - to have their children associate with the social undesirables that are legion in parts of England.

  2. So what can be done about this "dissolving of community bonds." How to forge them?

  3. Are you against the homeschooling movement then?

  4. I was trick or treating in the early/mid 90s and it seemed like just about everywhere had candy/decorations etc (though candy-givers dressing up was unusual). Might depend on the neighborhood though. I did notice a distinct drop off in kids as a candy-giver though, and it kept starting earlier and earlier. I had though it was supposed to end very late into the night (it was a bonus to find someone when everybody else was going to sleep), but it started ending many hours before bed. I think the schools or other local government started issuing approved times and curfews.

  5. "I did notice a distinct drop off in kids as a candy-giver though, and it kept starting earlier and earlier. "

    Something else I didn't think of is not just how many kids are out, but how hovering their parents are.

    At one extreme, the parents don't hover at all -- they just send them out and totally trust the neighbors. At the other extreme, they don't let them go out. In between, the parents allow them to go out, but only under their own supervision.

    Somewhere in the mid-'90s it became common for parents to start accompanying every group of kids. First they'd just wait at the end of the driveway and coach them, but by 2010 the lone kid was followed by his parents all the way up, always within arm's reach.

    That was just about non-existent in the '80s and early '90s. Your parents waited at home for you to come back, and they'd ask to see how big your haul was. Other than helping you get your costume on right, that was the extent of their involvement.

  6. All kids should go to either public or private schools... Just my thoughts..

  7. Good post on Halloween. I think this is might explain the nose dive in Halloween in my town. Kids rarely socialize with one another, anyway, where I live. This year I got zero kids at the door. What goes against your neighborhood cohesion is that I counted more house with decorations up this year than in 2012. The more decorations that go up, the less kids I seem to get.

    2011: Less decor. Nine kids.
    2012: More decor. Five or so kids
    2013: Even more decor. Zero kids.

  8. I don't see the decorations as a very strong measure of cohesion, at least compared to the guest-host thing with trick-or-treating. Decorations are impersonal, don't involve interacting with your neighbors, or even seeing them.

    It's like, "Well, gotta do something, might as well put up some decorations."


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