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Too Few "Thank Yous" on Holloween

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My wife Julia and I are extraordinarily lucky people. We have a wonderfully happy marriage, the economic crisis has not been too painful for us, and we live in a lovely town house on 95th Street between Park and Lexington in New York's tony Upper East Side.

The block we live on is landmarked, and well preserved brownstones built in the late 1880s line both sides of the street. Many of the homes have children in them, so on Halloween almost all of the homes are decorated with pumpkins, goblins, witches, and scary spider webs, and have been for several years. And virtually every home is generous in passing out candy and treats -- not to avoid tricks, but because of a nice sense of community and generosity.

Therefore, it's known as a great street on which to go trick-or-treating. On Halloween evening, 95th Street, starting at 4:30, is packed with parents and kids in costumes holding bags and plastic pumpkins heavy with candy. By 7:00 p.m. the sidewalk traffic is so heavy it overflows onto the street.

Costumed kids and parents come down from East Harlem and over from super-rich Carnegie Hill. Julia and I stand at the door and pass out handfuls of candy -- Mars bars, Butterfinger bars, Skittles, Bazooka bubble gum, Twizzlers, and Snickers -- by the tubfulls.

This is the second year I have paid careful attention to the behavior of the children and their parents and to what they say when they come to the door, and whether they say "thank you" or not.

This year, 95th Street was more crowded than usual (the word obviously gets around), but the behavior was similar to last year. There were roughly three groups:

1. Parents who sent their kids down the steps alone, kids who held out their bags and greeted us with "trick or treat" or "Happy Halloween," took their candy, and said "thank you." Group #1 consisted of the well-behaved kids.

2. Kids that came down the steps, said nothing or muttered something like "trickortreat," held out their bags, and turned and left without saying "thank you." Group #2 consisted of the entitled kids.

3. Kids that came down the steps with their parents and the parents would say, "Say 'Trick or treat,'" would help the kids hold out their bags, and then would quickly tell the kids, "Say 'thank you.'" Group #3 consisted of the learned-helplessness kids.

What was fascinating to me as a rank amateur behavioral economist was that the majority of the Group #1 well-behaved children were kids of color who almost certainly came down from East Harlem. The kids were polite. The parents would send them down alone, thus urging them to be independent, and after the kids had returned with candy the parents would say "thank you" to us as their children had done. They were grateful.

The majority of the Group #2 entitled kids were boys over ten practicing being sullen teenagers and neighborhood kids who walked over from Fifth and Park Avenue. Many of them with mothers who didn't pay attention to their kids as they talked with other mothers or on their cell phones. They didn't prompt their kids and I rarely heard a "thank you" from them or from their kids.

After one group of especially snotty, entitled kids came and went without a "thank you," I went up to the sidewalk and said to a group of parents (mostly mothers), "It's interesting how few kids say 'thank you.'" I got dirty looks that would have withered Henry Paulson. One mother said indignantly, "Not my daughter!" (She was wrong; her daughter hadn't uttered a word of thanks.) And I head another mother in the group mumble, "How rude." That's Park Avenue for you. The kids probably went to Dalton.

I felt sorry for the Group #3 learned-helplessness kids. Almost all of them did not come from East Harlem. Most of them had fancy, store-bought costumes. (I'm sure to elicit an "How adorable" comment so the parent would feel successful.) I can understand accompanying one-year olds and prompting them, but some mothers were doing it with three- and four-year-olds. The parents were absolutely clueless that they were teaching their kids to be helpless and not to be independent.

Not all one-year-olds came with their parents. I saw several struggling down the steps, some with bags as big as they were, tripping on their costumes, coming to the door wide-eyed looking for candy, and then determinedly, seriously crawling back up after accomplishing their all-important mission -- candy. Those kids are going to be OK; they'll be the bosses of and will eventually have to fire the learned-helplessess kids.

I estimate that the majority of the kids were nice, well-mannered, and said "thank you." But the percentage of entitled kids who didn't say "thank you" was disturbingly high this year, which is probably a function of living in one of the richest neighborhoods in the world where kids are spoiled, where parents hire tutors to do their kids' homework, and where many of the parents work on Wall Street.

I'm pretty sure none of those parents read this blog, but if they did I would tell them to teach their children to say "thank you," and that they would be better off if they lived in East Harlem where their kids would learn to get their own candy and be grateful when they finally got it. The kids would learn that their candy tastes sweeter when they have to work for it.

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