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Halloween

Can you feel it in the air? It’s almost Halloween! It’s time for costumes, ghosts, spooky movies, candy corn, and most importantly for the kids out there, it’s time for trick or treating. Sometimes, it’s easy for adults to forget just how important that one night is for our kids, at least until they get their costumes on and lose their minds with excitement. Once they’re running and giggling and hoarding their chocolate, it’s pretty clear what a big deal it is.

Your kids probably can’t tell you why it matters so much. If you try to ask why they’re excited, the question seems so silly to them they’ll probably just reply “candy,” unless they’re a little older, in which case they’ll still only say “candy,” but do so in a tone of voice that indicates a plethora of contempt at your questioning.

Here’s why it matters: Your kids are, in many important ways, the poorest people you know. They don’t really own anything. They have clothes and toys, but they have little control over what they own. Even if they receive an allowance, kids at trick-or-treating age don’t have the mental capacity or personal experiences to really understand saving or thinking about tomorrow.

They’re poor in other ways, too. If you have a really bad day and you can’t even look at the kitchen, you might decide to head to a local Italian restaurant for a passable spaghetti dinner. If they have a long day, they get to eat what is put in front of them. For most kids, the most control they have over dinner is deciding how much ketchup to put on their plate. No wonder they use so much of it.

If you get a chance, go watch kids under seven while they’re at school. One of the most common games entails the tearing up a piece of paper and writing “birthday” on each slip. Then the kids hand out tickets to their birthday party. Note: it does not matter how long it is until their actual birthday. Children are too poor for calendars. Why do they care so much about their birthday party? Because once a year, they get to take control. They get to decide who to invite. When you don’t own anything, that one day takes on special importance.

Halloween is important for the same reason. Once a year, kids get an enormous payday. They get candy, which is the universal currency of childhood (retaining value at a level the European and Chinese central banks must envy), and they get so much that it can consume their whole lives. Some kids are good at rationing, and they make it last until Thanksgiving. Other kids have been waiting for the late-October Bacchanal all year, and they’re going to finish the whole pile before bed; oral hygiene can take a hike for the evening.

This might be the perfect time to talk to your kids about budgeting, and making the pile last. It might be the time to show them how grownup paychecks work, and “tax” their pile. It might be the time to explain the relationship between labor and income, demonstrating that the more houses they visit, the more candy they earn. They also observe that some givers are more generous than others.

Or perhaps this might not be a time for kids to learn about money. They’re distracted, and every word you say is preventing them from getting to their candy. This might be a time to stop yourself from teaching them about money, so you can learn about your kids. What does candy mean to them? Why does owning things matter so much? If you ask them to share their candy, are they thinking you are taking away their candy? Do they make trades to get their favorites, and if so, are they good negotiators? If you’re really interested in helping the kids develop good money habits, Halloween is a way to clearly demonstrate ideas, but it’s also a time to see how much they know on their own.