Why Halloween Turns Children Into Monsters

The first time my oldest son went trick-or-treating, he was dressed up as a bumblebee, but he turned into a monster. Because, paradoxically, inundation always ends with a sense of deprivation…


Photo Credit: stupidmommy via Compfight cc

My son was two-years-old when it happened. We dressed him up in a puffy black and yellow costume, and we rang his first Halloween doorbell. As the first pieces of candy disappeared into his bag, he was too overwhelmed with wonder to utter a word.

By the third house, he had recovered his speech, and he expressed his childlike gratitude. By the fifth house, he was doing drive-by trick-or-treating—the candy hadn’t hit the bottom of the bag before he was hitting the sidewalk for the next score. By the seventh house, I think he would have wrestled the loot from the woman’s hands if he’d been big enough to take her. And by the end of the evening, when we told him it was time to stop, he was angry, because even at his age, he knew we hadn’t turned over every rock in search of sugar.

From a sense of wonder to a sense of deprivation. In about thirty minutes.

It doesn’t take long for opulence to change our lives.

When More is Less

I suppose you could write off his behavior as the greediness of childhood. But I don’t think he was acting like a kid; I think he was acting a like a human.

We are the most affluent generation in the history of the world. We have more toys, more gadgets, more technology, more ways to access music and books and television and movies, more rooms in our houses, and more cars in our garages than ever before. And yet, we feel a growing sense of scarcity. The more we have, it seems, the more we are aware of what we don’t have.

We have more stuff than ever before, and we have more choices than ever before. When we stand in the cereal aisle and choose one flavor, we have to give up fifty other flavors. When we have ten toys to choose from, buying one of them doesn’t feel satisfying, because it’s a reminder of the nine toys we couldn’t have. This morning, my daughter deliberated for several minutes about which of four different styles of straws she would use to drink her juice. She chose one.

But I think she felt more like she didn’t drink out of three.

Halloween is several days away, and we’ll watch the transformation wrought by copious amounts of good things. And, in a couple of months, as the holidays arrive, we’ll have our annual reminder of how humans work: the more gifts we get, the more gifts we want. It is no coincidence that the day after Christmas is one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

We keep trying to satisfy our hunger for more by feeding it, but it’s only making us hungrier. We shouldn’t be feeding it; we should be starving it.

And Less is More

Last week, I retreated to a cabin in the woods. One room. One bed. One fireplace. Two nights and three days. No television, no cellular reception, no WiFi. Just me and the trees and a book to read. I thought I’d be completely alone but, when I arrived, I quickly discovered I had a companion: my sense of deprivation was with me.

And in the first hours of the retreat it swelled.

I reached for my phone repeatedly and felt the loss of what I wouldn’t know and who I wouldn’t interact with and the entertainment I wouldn’t enjoy. I dwelled on the ways I could be using my time better, haunted by the to-do lists that weren’t shrinking. I even tried to manufacture choices for myself: sit, go for a hike, read, pray, write.

But then I remembered: there’s really only one thing we don’t have to choose. Only one thing always happening. Only one thing that is always the first thing. I remembered, there’s always just this one breath. And then the next one.

My sense of deprivation swelled. And I breathed. And my sense of deprivation popped. Like a balloon with a pin-prick. The air went in and out of me, and the air went out of my sense of scarcity and lacking and neediness and greediness.

Sometimes, contentedness is as simple as learning to breathe again. Or, rather, remembering again that we are already breathing, and that life need not be more complicated in this moment than taking the next one.

I Was Reminded

What did I “get” out of my retreat? Absolutely nothing. Which was kind of the point. And the blessed nothingness of it reminded me:

Breathing isn’t a given, it’s a gift.

More stuff equals more strife.

When we decrease our options, we increase our joy.

Stillness is not the absence of progress; it is the most peaceful kind of progress.

Simplicity is the birthplace of satisfaction.

And less is truly more.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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45 thoughts on “Why Halloween Turns Children Into Monsters

  1. It may seem I’m obsessed with the anthropological analysis of human behavior.
    In the case of your son, the children in these times when they go to market and other site…this attitude of “I want more”, to accumulate I find most primitive.In prehistory were accumulated food “almost” (or not) wildly now, and I do not believe in consumerism
    this is a word imposed by political regimes, accumulating that becomes “almost” (or not) wildly tablet,iphone,smartphones,clothes,money…
    As to “less is more” the problem is not disconnected from the maelstrom of cities but disconnected from our brains silencing the parrot who speaks incessantly all day at night.

    Regards from the so rainy Uruguay

    PS:I think that Noah’s ark will go through here.God,o raining and not stop!

    • Alejandra, I was taking the psychological perspective, but thanks for adding the evolutionary perspective, as well. I always appreciate your additional nuance!

  2. Oh.my.goodness! Here’s another one that’s going out to all my facebook friends. Kelly, you’ve ‘nailed it’, yet again. You’re such a blessing!

  3. Having had pneumonia which developed into pleurisy years ago and a cold recently, breathing is a definite gift. My next breath is a gift. More is not always bad! There are definite advantages to more love, more giving to others, more sacrifice. For God in His love for us gave, sacrificed, and set an example for us to follow.

  4. Yes! We who have become accustomed to the affluence of being able to build our comfortable nests at home and then bring our portable libraries and WiFi connections out into the world with us can lose sight of the expansiveness and connectedness we (would) feel unplugged and truly experiencing our moments. With abundance in our homes, we can find ourselves spending ridiculous amounts of time just servicing our things — cleaning, organizing, moving them around without actually enjoying them.
    There is much to gain in mindfully giving up the excess that doesn’t enhance our wellbeing. That doesn’t make it an easy task– for any of us. Much of what is worth doing is difficult when we begin.

    • Shel, thanks for yet another important angle on this. The more stuff we have, the more stuff we have to service. I don’t think I’m ever more annoyed than when I’m having to solve a technical problem I wish I didn’t have!

  5. That has absolutely nothing to do with halloween, you just used an anecdotal story to try and prove a point that we as a generation are spoilt as we always want more… How is that because of Halloween?? More fear mongering about halloween the only time you basically even mention halloween is in the first paragraph out of 11!!

    Whether or not you have a point that we as a society are getting spoilt and losing a sense of what we have with what we feel we need… that really has nothing to do with halloween, if anything its more to do we evolution and how scarcity is common in the wild and its best to take everything while you can as you don’t know when you’ll next be able to. Much like how a dog keeps eating even when its had more than enough as they’ve not evolved as a species to know meals are provided not scarce, Its the same reason we over eat and love fatty foods as if your not going to have a meal for the next few days fatty foods are better to help u last than celery…

    Anyway tad off topic but that really sneaky and click bait of the author as the article really has nothing to do with Halloween and he knows it (otherwise he’d at least mention halloween in his conclusion).

    • Jeff, thanks for adding the additional evolutionary perspective. Alejandr picked up on that, as well, and I think it’s a nice complement to this article. I’m sorry you perceive the title as click bait. Kind of ironic that in a post about Halloween, you thought the article was a trick and not a treat!

  6. This post really resonated with me today. Thank you. Less is more….for me anyway. It allows me to see the beauty of the world and to be grateful for what I have. It also allows me to focus on what truly matters in this current moment of my life: my relationship with my self, my husband, my young son and creating our family unit. For me, healthy families don’t just happen. They are created. Thanks Dr. Kelly. I am grateful for your posts.

  7. Love it, Kelly! Reminds me of the scripture that says, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.” When we realize that every breath is a gift from God, then we can live lives of gratitude rather than entitlement. By the way, I agree with your analysis of Halloween and wish we could eliminate it from the calendar!

    • It’s going to be in the thirties here on Halloween; I wish we could at least move it to a different day!

  8. Dear Dr. Flanagan,

    This is the first time I’m posting after reading your e-posts for some months. Thank you for your thoughtful messages, which bring calm and stillness upon my distracting life.

    Your post moved me to write, because it reminded me of the time when I was warded in hospital for three nights, for dehydration due to tonsillitis. I spent the first night awake with a raging fever, hooked up to a drip, feeling nauseous and anxious.

    The only thing which helped take my focus off the discomfort, was to think repeatedly, “Breathe in, breathe out”.

    Lots of other patients were moaning around me, and my family and friends weren’t allowed to spend the night in the common ward. So, I was alone.

    It sounds clichéd – but it’s true – at moments like these, I thought not of money and material things, but all the people I needed a hug from.

    Thank you for reminding me that at the end of the day, our lives are a gift, as great as those precious lives around us.
    Regards, Jia

    • Jia, you’ve made something beautiful here out of a painful experience in your life. That is truly redemptive. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  9. Powerful post, once again. There is something to our being wired for scarcity in our instincts. I learned from Alison Armstrong the distinction of “enough” as an aspect of our higher consciousness. I like to think of it as the opposite of scarcity, rather than abundance. I guess the job of aware parents is to teach enough to their kids. First we have to live from there! Then, yesterday morning, just after reading about how we continue to use our phones while driving, which has lethal potential, I noticed how insistent the impulse in me was to check for replies to my blog post – while I was driving! In an odd way, I think part of our compulsion to use our devices is an urge to connect. And, I love the reminder to connect *first* with my essential aliveness, the spirit animating my body, my breath. Thank you, Dr. Kelly.

    • You nailed it, Cara, we have to live from there and then teach it and then have grace for our kids when they don’t get it because, after all, they are wired for scarcity. Your comment also made me think about personality and how differently my kids relate to scarcity based upon who they are. A complex topic!

  10. Thank you for putting in to words what I have been feeling more and more the older (and hopefully wiser) I get.

  11. Great article again, Kelly! I agree with all that you said. It reminds me of how it is our spirit and our heart that “hungers” for more always, but we have lost sight of what truly fills us and satisfies both. We have been brainwashed by the incessant consumerism that says we are not happy, fulfilled, joyous, etc. unless we have this, that and the other, which is not really true. It takes great strength of heart, I think, to really stop and make a conscious choice to say “I AM enough!” and “I have enough!” and not get carried away by the continuous current of MORE! Like the bumper sticker that reads, “The one who dies with most toys, wins!” (Horrible indication of our state of being today!)

    But we have lost sight of what really fills us to the brim and overflows with real, authentic joy and satisfaction! To me, that is God and our connection to the everlasting Oneness that sustains and continues to gift us with its very own Breath! Sadly, for so many today, it’s not even good or allowed or acceptable to even mention God, as if God is not important anymore. To me this indicates how much we have lost sight of the basic fact that without God we cannot even breathe.

    Thanks again for a great reminder and for another great post!

    • You’re welcome, Jenny! And thank you for sharing this reflection. Unfortunately, it looks like the picture didn’t come through on here or on Facebook. It should show up here. I wonder if I have to change a setting to allow pictures to be posted. I’ll look into that.

  12. Hi Kelly, I just found this picture post that I thought was appropriate for my previous comment. I hope it shows up. Sorry! the picture doesn’t seem to show up here.

  13. Dear Dr. Kelly,

    Thank you so much for your encouragement! I’ve been blessed by your e-posts, especially this one. I am more thankful now than before.

  14. This one is SO WONDERFUL. Hits the nail on the head. I have always felt that more is too much; that there are too many choices, too much technology. We have so much, yet we have lack relationship to one another and to the BASIC enjoyment of life. I guess I yearn for a simpler way, even as far back as the ’70s when I was a child. We didn’t need cell phones. People weren’t staring at their phone screen and not looking at one another. My husband even carries it around with him at home when he could leave it on the counter. I think we all need more stillness, more peace, more depth. Thank you for writing this! Makes me want a nice, quiet retreat!

    • I’m guilty of what your husband does, too, Catherine. But its experiences like the one I had, where you have the space to get over that initial urge to reach for it, that remind me how good it feels on the other side!

  15. Simplicity is beautiful, just like your words here. & it cones from within, not without & we strive to hoard happiness where it’s only a moment. Even slipping out fast just like that breath, until we learn to breath in that happiness again.
    That kid wasn’t really getting greedy, he was just getting human & in his kiddish pure world he could strive for it & store it all within a bag with a few candies. Happy Halloween doc. Sometimes even.as adults we need to.trick happiness to to treat us with it’s joy. Try this time to find urself a handful.

      • Great to hear back from you, Kelly!! Health & the self has been good in the time I’ve seemed absent from here these few months. I took this time as my own retreat absorbing & reflecting on things as well as your few last posts in which you have taken each idea you write about brick by brick & leave it threadbare. For a while It was astounding & then it all started falling in place. Happy Halloween & collect a few laughs while for life there can be no trick or treat unless it so wishes & for then I hope the bag is ready. Adios, till we meet again on your wall which has a few bricks missing, again just like life. That’s why that wall is important, a big thanks

  16. Aside from the family pictures, finding your blog has probably been the best thing has happened to me on Facebook. I really, tremendously enjoy your posts. They make me think, feel, and be more self-aware. Consistently great stuff – thanks for sharing your thoughts and views on things!

  17. Excellent choice for a topic, and the examples used are simple and to the point. Congratulations on your retreat.
    Awhile back I had a small epiphany; my feelings of insecurity often motivate me to buy something. Electronic gadgets & shoes are my primary “objects of desire” :). Earlier in life I often chose more destructive pursuits.
    However in that moment, what occurred to me is; the more things I buy the more things I have to defend. My unconscious reaction to my feelings of insecurity actually increases my insecurity.
    It turns out, I don’t need to gain something (fortune, fame, God, shoes, etc…) I already have what I need. I just have forgotten.
    So, the new goal is to get rid of stuff – mostly beliefs. Beliefs about myself. In this case, less is more.

    • Mike, this is wonderful. And it feels like you’ve read chapter six of the book I’m writing! We’re definitely on the same wavelength here. Really good stuff. I have to go do some re-writes now. : )

  18. I live in Australia where Halloween is not so seriously celebrated thank goodness, though it seems to be growing, pushed by the big shopping centres of course. It seems to me that the huge increase in greed in our society is encouraged by this sort of event. As role models, parents could say ‘no’ to their children going out ‘begging’ and ‘threatening repercussions’ in their demands for their sweets. It does not feel at all pleasant to me the way some of the children behave. it is as if they become ‘posessed’, which I suppose is what is happening. I guess it could be much harder in the US to start bucking the trend.. But greed is at the root of so much of society’s woes now, and it would be great if more people refused to be caught up in this sort of thing. It is not good to begin life to so expect something for nothing.

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