[Content Note: Pranks; bullying; hostility to consent; child abuse.]
Pranks are inherently predatory. The entire intent of pranking is to get one up on someone who is vulnerable, by virtue of their trusting the prankster because of an existing relationship or by virtue of being deliberately denied relevant information or by virtue of having an expectation of safety or security or normalcy. Pranks are also, by their very nature, hostile to consent, because most pranks don't work if the person being pranked is able to give enthusiastic consent to whatever is about to be done to and/or around them.
Taking advantage of someone for a laugh, betraying their trust for one's own amusement, is a shitty, bullying thing to do.
And when a parent does it to a child, it's abusive.
So it is that every year I rage*seethe*boil when Jimmy Kimmel's "parents prank their kids by telling them they ate all their Halloween candy" video goes viral. (He also has an equally terrible Garbage Christmas Present prank.) Here is a typical write-up of this year's video, headlined: "Jimmy Kimmel makes kids cry again with 5th annual Halloween candy prank."
And, naturally, the fact that he's "making kids cry" is supposed to be hilarious: "'I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy' challenge is back for its fifth year and it's better than ever. The Kimmel Show says they received a record number of submissions this year. Like the years before, the videos were filled with many tears, screams and tantrums. Watch the hilarious video..."
I watched the video, which I will neither post nor transcribe, and I did not not find it hilarious, because, as you well know, I am the Most Humorless Feminist in all of Nofunnington. And I seem to lack the circuit in my humor center that makes one laugh at image after image of tiny children being hoodwinked by their parents in the cruelest way, so those children can be the butt of a joke on national television.
One of the most casual forms of emotional abuse that parents commit on their children is the denial of their pain, because it seems trivial. It is crucial for parents to validate children's feelings, even and especially when they are upset. Here, parents set out to deliberately cause that "trivial" pain, and then laugh at their children experiencing it.
The thing about parents pranking their kids—and I cannot believe I need to write this—is that it fundamentally shatters children's security and trust in the idea that their parents will not harm them. (Which, in some of these families, may never have existed in the first place.) The takeaway for a child whose parents like to prank them is that their parent(s) might harm them, and no amount of "JUST KIDDING!" can fully repair the crack in the edifice of what should be an inviolable trust.
Parents who prank, tease, and ridicule their own kids, even if they're "just kidding," do so at the risk of their kids' ability to feel safe even in their own homes. That is not a risk any parent should be willing to take with a child.
And somehow, I don't imagine that "but I only did it so people could laugh at your despair on NATIONAL TELEVISION!" would bring a whole lot of comfort.
Parents—or other older family members, guardians, adult friends of the family—playing pranks on kids is also a dangerous communication—even if an unintentional one—that consent doesn't matter.
Kids who are taught by the adults they are meant to trust that consent doesn't matter are more likely to themselves be hostile to other people's consent. It's tough to, for example, convincingly teach your kid not to bully other kids while simultaneously teaching your kid that whether someone wants something done to them doesn't matter, as long as it's "funny."
And kids who are taught that consent doesn't matter are also more likely to have difficulty drawing boundaries for themselves, because they haven't learned they're even allowed to have inviolable boundaries. Particularly if a child's protests to pranking have been met with shaming that implies they're humorless or oversensitive or unfun, a child will also learn that speaking up on one's own behalf, in one's own defense, will yield more harm, rather than less.
Certainly, there are people who were pranked by their parents as kids who feel quite strongly they enjoyed the familial pranks and have no lasting effects from it. And maybe that is absolutely true for every one of those people, and maybe some of those people are less respectful of others' boundaries than they have really investigated. Either way, it's irrelevant.
The point is that parental pranking stands to communicate to a child that consent doesn't matter. And that is a very dangerous message to convey to anyone. Ever.
Stop it, parents. Just stop.