In 2011, Jimmy Kimmel, the namesake and host of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, asked parents to commit the ultimate Halloween prank on their children. Parents were asked to hide their children’s hard earned “trick or treat” candy, tell the unsuspecting innocents that they had eaten all of the candy, and then record the reactions on video. The result was overwhelming. Parents across the country submitted their “Hey Jimmy Kimmel, I told my kids I ate all their Halloween candy” videos. The bit was so popular the first year with both audiences and pranking parents, and again in 2012 and 2013, that this year Kimmel referred to it as a “cherished Halloween tradition.” Even as Kimmel and much of America laughs hysterically at the many over-the-top dramatic responses of the children, the comedy bit draws fire from many others.
Now, in 2014, Kimmel has tied this comedy bit to the work of Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that seeks to “lift the spirits and meet the evolving needs of our Active Duty and Veteran community, and provide volunteer opportunities for all Americans to express their appreciation to member of our Military.” According to its website, Operation Gratitude sends more than 150,000 care packages of snacks, entertainment, hygiene items, and personal letters of gratitude to active duty military and veterans, first responders, and wounded warriors and their caregivers. Each year Operation Gratitude collects nearly 120 tons of Halloween candy to distribute in care packages. The annual campaign also includes a pitch to dentists and others in order to get 100,000 oral hygiene kits that contain toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, mouthwash, and lip balm.
As far as comedy goes, Kimmel’s Halloween candy bit is very strong. To date, the 2014 compilation has had nearly 20 million views on YouTube.
Now, tell the truth…you watched the video just now, did you not? It is nearly irresistible. And, yes, you probably laughed aloud…even if you cringed at some of the saddest, most hopeless responses of sweetly compliant children and yet secretly agreed that some of the most ill-behaved, rudest children deserved to lose their candy, permanently. Many seem to merely appreciate the humor of the stunt without a second thought.
As far as an appropriate parenting behavior, though, questions are being raised. Some are raising the questions more gently than others. For example, the Today Show, an iconic NBC morning program, called this year’s bit “as traumatizing as ever.” Time.com, with a less obvious ratings motive than NBC, has also chided the comedian with tongue firmly in cheek, asking, “Funny? Yes. Incredibly mean and probably exploitive? Yup.”
YouTube viewers of the prank’s compilation video are more clearly weighing in with their disapproval of both parents and the children. Consider a few of the 16,000-plus comments to be found on YouTube about the compilation:
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“Wow, tormenting and taunting children sure is HILARIOUS! I’m sure their screaming and losing their minds is fine and these are perfectly good parents….Child abuse is not funny.” (BenBaker)
“Funny how people would rather blame the kids than the s****y parents to who raised them.” (Delilah Buttontog)
“Oh my god. This actually made me lose some faith in humanity. I wonder how much of a spoiled brat a kid can get?” (Kestrel SP)
“This really made you lose faith in humanity? I think there’s much more serious things going on in the world to make you lose your so-called faith than a bunch of little kids crying over eaten candy.” (Junda Mane)
“I guess I’m in the minority who thinks this is not okay to do. Yes, it’s funny but it’s the principle of parents stealing their kid’s food and making them cry and distraught.” (Colm Rooney)
At least one media source is more seriously questioning the effect of the prank on children. The Associated Press discussed the Kimmel bit with a teacher in the Kansas State University department of psychological sciences. Professor Mark Barnett questioned whether parents in the videos were looking out for the best interests of the child, when he asserted, “pranking your children is not harmless fun, but is cruel and potentially damaging.”
Barnett’s concern finds some support from the American Humane Society, which defines emotional abuse “as a pattern of behavior by parents or caregivers that can seriously interfere with a child’s cognitive, emotional, psychological, and social development.” Among the emotionally abusive behaviors identified by the American Humane Society are: ignoring, rejecting, isolating, exploiting or corrupting, verbally assaulting, terrorizing, and neglecting a child. Recognizing that any parent may become frustrated and out of control, the Society acknowledges that emotional abuse is a chronic pattern of behavior, not a one-time occurrence that causes trauma and harm.
So, what we are we to make of this extremely popular Jimmy Kimmel comedy bit? Is it a showcase for bad parenting that traumatizes and damages children for life? Is it a video pageant starring both exceptionally bratty and beatific children to terrify and inspire us? Does it merely illustrate, as N1nja 129 explains in a post on the compilation’s YouTube page, “one of the many reasons us Aussies don’t celebrate Halloween?”
Maybe it is just plain good ol’ Halloween fun, like soaping windows. And yet…one has to wonder if this prank is really necessary in a world in which so many children, everyday, are “tricked” for real and are not “treated” to even the most basic human rights. For the sake of a few laughs, does it carry the unintended consequence of giving adults, including some who do not need it, even more permission to use their power over children? The power differential between parents and children is very real, even if the prank is not. An abuse of adult power is a traumatic event for children. Lynn Margolies writes on PsychCentral, “The essential psychological effect of trauma is a shattering of innocence. Trauma creates a loss of faith that there is any safety, predictability, or meaning in the world, or any safe place in which to retreat.” Seriously, have we run so short of children with lost innocence that we need to create more?—Tom Klaus