My 14 year old daughter went trick-or-treating this Halloween. I reminded her in my matter-of-fact, fatherly way that this would be her last door-to-door Halloween celebration in the neighborhood. She disagreed. She believed that her experience of begging for candy from strangers had no expiration date, and even if it did, it wasn’t this year. I disagreed with her, and I educated her on the unwritten rules of the Social Contract.
The rules of the Social Contract are unwritten because they are unconsciously accepted by most everyone, and passed from generation to generation through looks, glares, and well-timed throat clearings. Violators are punished behind their backs, in ways that they may never know – a lost invitation here, a kindness withheld there. The message seeps through our thick skulls somehow, and the lesson is learned. This seemingly random method of extending the terms of the Social Contract makes its rules and guidelines no less rigid. For Halloween, we all know them:
- Trick-or-treating may not commence before twilight, although minor exceptions are made for those under 5 (close neighbor’s homes only).
- Trick-or-treating ends at 9 PM on weekend nights; 8:30 PM on weekday nights.
- You may not knock on the door if the porch light is turned off.
- You may not visit the same house twice.
- You may not ask for candy if you are not in a costume.
- You must say “Thank you”, even if you receive an apple or individually wrapped, year-old Now and Laters, and the thank you is insincere.
- You may no longer trick-or-treat door-to-door after completion of the first year of high school (what I call “The Logan’s Run” rule).
With the exception of some regional differences, these rules are universal, aren’t they?
No one knows where these rules originated. No one knows the logic that formed the basis of these standards of conduct, although we can all make up our own justification for their enforcement. The Number One enforceability clause for the Social Contract? Because. Just ‘because’ (Editor’s Note: “Because” is the contracted form of “Because I said so.”)
“Because” has a simplicity and a finality to it. It’s open-ended, yet cuts off further discourse on the subject. “Because”, literally translated, means “This (rule) conforms to my pre-existing biases, morals, and upbringing, and enforcement allows me to feel safe and in control, and it delays or eliminates any threatening change from my life.” “Because” says all that so much more succinctly.
With every passing generation, however, the Social Contract evolves, sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in seismic shifts. All in the Family altered the list of acceptable topics for prime time network TV overnight. Madonna pushed the Social Contract's acceptance of underwear as outerwear. Mr. Mom reflected the changing roles in the modern American family. Skirts get shorter, polite manners fade away, and people call later at night than we'd like (past 9 PM for a couple with children is a violation). The Contract bends, and it breaks us.
The Social Contract that is imprinted in our subconscious mind does not change readily. We will fight those changes to the Contract with intrafamily, multi-generational warfare, using the conventional weapons of yelling or punishing those who dare violate the terms of the Contract. We may even employ the WMD of family hostilities, the Silent Treatment. In this way, things can change around us, while we never will.
Marra may trick-or-treat in the neighborhood next year. Who am I to fight the annual $5.2 billion US Halloween industry? But I will always shake my head at her flaunting of accepted convention, knowing in my heart that I am right. I am always right in contractual matters. At the tender age of 48, I have earned that right.
I will, of course, continue to steal her Almond Joys and Mounds bars from her stash. That, too, is part of my unwritten, and secret, Social Contract (Appendix A).