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Trick or Treat: The Halloween Routine

ByJean Berko GleasonThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Halloween is today and children need to know some special language to be successful Trick-or-Treaters. But first, here’s a puzzler: On Halloween, costumed kids are going door-to-door, saying “trick or treat!” But one kid says “good evening!” Who is he dressed up to be? The answer’s at the end of this post.

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So we did a study of over 100 children on three Halloweens. Our interest was the special “trick or treat” linguistic routine used on this one day of the year. Children need to produce the routine, but they don’t have to know what it means—in fact little children have no idea what tricks or treats are. Other early routines adults want children to perform are “bye-bye,” “hi,” and “thank you.” Routines are different from most of children’s language, where adults want children to say only things that are true. By contrast, adults teach children to say “thank you” whether they feel thankful or not.

Trick or Treat: The Halloween Routine-tort.jpg
He needs some routinized language… and some shoes.

The basic Halloween routine is “trick or treat,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.” If you watch the kids who ring your doorbell, you will probably see that the little ones who are around 3 years old don’t say anything—they just hold their bags open. Kids of about 4 or 5 say “trick or treat.” Somewhat older children say “trick or treat” and “thank you,” and children over 10 say “trick or treat,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.” You may also see parents standing on the sidewalk saying things like “Don’t forget to say ‘trick or treat’ and ‘thank you!’” All this illustrates that it in order to have communicative competence in a language it’s important for speakers to know what to say in many social situations, even ones that occur only once a year. Although most of the time children know the meaning of the words they use, there are also moments when they have to produce linguistic routines like “trick or treat.”

Answer to the puzzler: Did you say “Dracula”? If you did, that shows that you have a complex understanding of our Halloween social ritual.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.