A reader wrote, “Dear Professor Parenting: Please tell me what you think about Jimmy Kimmel asking parents to convince their kids that they ate all their Halloween candy.”
At first, my response was that those kids are likely going to be just fine in the long run because most people end up just fine. The odds are in their favor. Then, I got in the shower and I started thinking. I started thinking that I don’t like the spirit of the trick. I don’t like it because it celebrates being mean to our kids. I especially don’t like it in the context of repeated mean, nasty, taunting parenting that too many kids have to face from their parents—the people around whom children center their entire world in their early prescient years. Then, I had a flashback to my childhood.
The flashback was a memory of my sixth birthday. The only thing I wanted was a desk. I wanted to have a special place all of my own to do the things that brought me the most joy—schoolwork and crafts. The few months leading up to my birthday, I had just started kindergarten which resulted in me being assigned a desk. I had been given my own first desk and it was my first love. All I wanted was to have a desk at home too. A place to work, put my books, and keep my art supplies. I asked for a desk everyday leading up to my birthday.
The big day came. It was a Saturday. I woke up at 7am and asked my mom if I had gotten a desk for my birthday. I had been promised a desk. My parents sat me down on the couch and handed me a small wrapped present about the size of a ladies’ wallet. I felt my heart sinking through my stomach as I opened it. It was a box made of laminate board. I was unable to hold in my disappointment and shock. My mom told me that it was a pencil box. She explained that they wanted to get me a desk but they didn’t have enough money. All they could afford was the pencil box. That’s all I was getting for my birthday. I bit my lip, ran down the hallway into my room, and let the hot tears run down my cheeks.
Just as I had started to let my tears turn into quiet sobbing, my mom entered and tried to convince me to come back out. She wanted to show me something. I obeyed, walking down the hallway with my head down, vision still blurred from my crying. She opened the door to the guest room, and there was desk. It was the desk I specifically requested. My parents erupted in laughter. I had gotten a desk, but I was confused. Why would my parents have played such a cruel joke? Why did they think that the pain they caused me was funny?
I settled into my desk, the wound of my parents’ cruelty still raw. My parents left, laughing all the way to the family room about how funny it was to see me so disappointed when I opened the pencil box. My father had managed to snap a photograph of me the instant that I opened the pencil box. For the rest of my life, my family would pull out that photo and laugh about how funny it was. Every time they pull that photo out, they reopen my old wound just so they can have a laugh.
My main issue with parents being encouraged to video record themselves convincing their children that they ate all of their Halloween candy is that it praises parents for being mean and nasty to their children. I’m not against playing tricks or pranks in general. In fact, I don’t think that an isolated event like mine would necessarily scar children for life. My experience could have gone much differently.
What my parents had done, in psychological terms, is called a rupture. They had ruptured or damaged our relationship with their actions. We do it all the time to each other in microscopic ways (not returning texts fast enough, forgetting important dates). Usually, it’s no big deal because we do what’s called a repair. We apologize and make amends. We validate the other person’s pain. We empathize.
My parents didn’t repair. They didn't recognize that they had hurt me deeply. If this had been an isolated event and/or my parents had repaired the rupture, I wouldn’t be writing a blog post about it as a developmental psychologist concerned with helping parents treat their children more kindly. What happened, instead, was me being left alone to deal with my pain.
I have problems with venerating cruelty for a cheap laugh because I want to prevent children from experiencing the repeated cruelty that I faced. My parents are the meanest, cruelest people I’ve ever known. My parents would say things like children should be seen and not heard, I’ll give you something to cry about, and if I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you. When I was three, I once spent three hours in time-out with my nose pressed against the wall for breaking one of my toys. It's this kind of omnipresent threat of parental cruelty that I admonish. Video recording has the potential to make it worse by facilitating and encouraging parents to make their children relive the trauma. It’s experiences with parental cruelty like mine that I want to prevent if I can. I would never participate in that Halloween candy prank because there’s no need for me to take a chance that I deeply hurt my child. Kids do cute and funny things without people acting like total dicks. Most importantly, however, there is enough cruelty and nastiness in this world. Children don't need their parents to be one of those people too.
I get that the Jimmy Kimmel prank is funny. I’ve laughed at the things those kids in those videos say. I also don’t think that the kids in those videos are going to be messed up as a result of their parents convincing them that they ate all of their Halloween candy. What I’m trying to point out is that this type of deception isn’t something that’s completely innocuous. It has the potential to do real lasting harm to real people, especially if it’s a way of life for the children whose parents do so.