THE OTHER day, I heard a 12-year-old boy telling a group of friends that Halloween was a "stupid" holiday. "You have to wear a stupid costume and walk around in the cold and get stupid candy," he said. "Why doesn't everybody just buy a bag of candy they like and stay home?"
It takes time, of course, for the invisible hand of the market to grip young minds. But the boy's words seem especially salient this time of year when -- in what has become an annual ritual of paranoia -- religious fundamentalists badger school principals with complaints about the holiday. The fact is, as the 12-year-old pointed out, sooner or later children come to their own conclusions about Halloween and everything else; it is an adult illusion that we control what they think.
Nonetheless, there is an increasingly vocal cadre which, in almost desperate McCarthy-esque tones, insists that Halloween is an insidious satanic plot to poison the minds of young Americans. I confess that Halloween is not my favorite holiday. But generations of American kids have managed to slog through it unscathed.
The zealots seem to have focused on Halloween much the same way as the man who, having just lost his job, goes home and kicks the dog. It is a convenient target for a pent-up feeling of powerlessness at a system that seems intractably unfair.
A study published just this week by the Washington Times found that most Americans do, indeed, feel like a ping pong ball in a political game that has little to do with their lives. The survey found that 88 percent of Americans believe politicians take special care of the wealthy, and nearly as many think lawmakers are under the sway of major corporations or special interests; 60 percent are outright disgusted. On the other hand, fewer than one in five people who could have voted in the primary elections actually did.
It would be a sad commentary indeed if corruption appears so intractable, and lawmakers so inaccessible, that the feeling of political empowerment now begins and ends with whether little Johnny's Freddy Krueger costume will contribute to America's moral decline. Sadder still is that anyone thinks he or she can mold children's views and values by insisting that they dress up and parade around like Donald Duck instead.
But the protests really aren't about that. They are about parental control in a world that has taken that control away. A world in which Mom and Dad are busy at work, and the kids can come home from school to flip on the X-rated movie on cable television. A world in which the lyrics of the songs that blare through the stereos in teen-agers' bedrooms make parents blush. A world in which television-watching has replaced reading great novels, in which one quarter of our kids grow up in single-parent families and drugs are as easy to get as a Snickers on Halloween.
With no confidence that the political system will address these problems -- let alone respond to them -- adults have been reduced to adopting frenzied, hit-and-miss approaches almost across the board.
In a fearful knee-jerk much like forcing kids to dress up as cartoon characters instead of witches, the Talbot County School Board acted in precisely that way this week when it rejected a proposal to let school nurses dispense condoms to sexually active students.
A survey had found that 36 percent of the county's 10th graders were sexually active. More frightening, only 11 percent said they used condoms. The dangers these numbers reveal are so obvious they barely need elaboration. Suffice it to say that pregnancy is the among the least onerous of the consequences. Un-safe sex is a gamble with death. But no one wanted to hear it.
Talbot County is not, of course, unique. Across the country, parents and school administrators who have jumped on the bandwagon to support drug- and alcohol-information programs to try to keep kids alive and safe, recoil from the suggestion that they ought to do the same when it comes to sexuality.
There is a big difference between an 8-eight-year old dressing up as a devil for Halloween, and a 15-year-old having sexual intercourse, I know. But there is an element of sameness in the responses -- that adults can counteract all the negative influences in children's lives if they merely pretend they don't exist. Don't let Janie dress up as a werewolf and don't give Donnie condoms. Then everything will be all right.
The trouble is that it won't. Kids can still rent the "Texas Chain-Saw Massacre" at the local video store or flip on prime-time television and be inundated with violence. And teen-agers who want to be sexually active certainly won't be deterred because no one provides them with counseling or condoms.
The real challenge for parents, and for school systems, is to recognize the real struggles children face and to provide rational support and guidance. Pretending these things don't exist offers kids a trick, not a treat.