There is a drug that we are giving our children that is turning them into uncontrollable monsters. It destroys their capacity to pay attention, to play freely, to respond compassionately, to harness their own worst instincts. Its effects are dramatic and rapid; the drug hits the bloodstream and in less than a minute, it transforms them from sweet, thoughtful, creative, curious creatures into raging clouds of unmitigated id. This drug is unbelievably powerful and addictive, and yet it is not regulated or controlled by any government agency. Parents everywhere readily and thoughtlessly give it to their children, and up until now, I have been one of those parents.
But no more.
I’m on to you, sugar.
Last night, I witnessed the transmogrification in my own child. She was in a sweet and playful mood all evening. I picked her up from school and she was excited to see me, talkative in the car on the ride home, eager to do something fun with us. She went for a walk with her mother; they had an adventure and she met a new friend who shared her ball and they played together on the tennis courts. When we told her we were taking her to our favorite local Mexican restaurant, she got excited and announced her desire for quesadillas. We took a coloring book and she cheerfully announced to us which page she was going to color for each of her friends. She let us help her color them while we waited for our food. She was friendly with our server; every time he came and brought us something, she declared without prompting, “Thank you, sir!” She ate her chicken quesadilla and eagerly copied her daddy in using a tortilla chip to help scoop rice onto her spoon. But when they brought us a complimentary dessert, she announced that she’d like a piece of Valentine’s candy instead. And we, being the corner boy slingers we’ve become for cheap refined sugar, we agreed. Because, you know, who wouldn’t rather pass up a freshly made sweet tortilla sundae for a heart-shaped Ring Pop?
That damn Ring Pop hadn’t been in her mouth thirty seconds before the sweet, amusingly polite and engaging child turned into a fiendish monstrosity of opposition and defiance. She tore through the house like a four-foot tornado. Her clothes nearly fell off her body in shreds as the hulking beast of her unadulterated obstinacy ripped through her adorable exterior. Bath time became a hurricane of shrieks and tangled hair. Everything we said to her was repeated back to us through an echo chamber of sarcasm and sass: “No, you behave! No, you stop squirming! I will too get to read books!” She spit on me and hit her mother. The sugar demon had possessed my child and turned her into a Linda-Blair-in-The-Exorcist abomination.
We feel like we do a pretty decent job of limiting her candy intake. At Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter we limit her intake to no more than one piece a day and try to “disappear” as many pieces as possible when she’s not looking. But it’s easy to use candy as a carrot for our child: for eating a good dinner, for going to bed without a fuss, for cleaning up her room. During the early days of potty training we used M&Ms and jelly beans as positive rewards for successes. We are the ones who introduced her to sugar. It’s our fault she keeps asking for candy.
You remember that early-nineties PSA where the dad comes into the teenager’s room with a crack pipe and demands, “Where did you learn this?” and the kid shouts in earnest confusion and pain, “From you! I learned it from you!” Yeah, that’s us. We eat three times as much candy as she does, and I wouldn’t even say we eat a lot of candy. What’s worse is that we know she shouldn’t see us doing it, so we eat candy behind her back. That’s how we “disappear” her candy – we eat it ourselves. We are bad examples. We are her enablers, and dealers, and junkie peers.
Sugar, of course, is everywhere. It’s in all kinds of foods, many of which I have no problems feeding her. Fruits and starches, yogurt, even the healthier cereals. We don’t even let her drink juice because it’s basically nothing but sugar water. I think it’s probably fine to let her have desserts now and then. Cookies, cake, and ice cream all have plenty of sugar in them, but they’re homemade and their intake is limited by how their fat content tends to fill her up quickly. But candy is just mainlining sugar, and the worst kind of sugar. God help us, candy is tearing our family apart. Our household is just so unpredictable and scary when she’s using.
Obviously, I’m being a little overdramatic. But I do believe this is a significant problem. Remember the fuss about how Joe Camel made cigarettes appealing to children? Why is no one complaining about how the worst kinds of candy appeal only to children? It’s safe to say that the sugar content of a Ring Pop probably wouldn’t set a grown adult on edge like it does a four-year-old. But no reasonable adult would find a Ring Pop appealing. (I mean, come on – who would eat a Ring Pop in a world where sweet tortilla sundaes exist? Complimentary!)
I remember one year as a kid I went trick-or-treating and a woman on our block handed out apples. This didn’t just seem merely lame; it felt personally offensive. What is this world coming to when a well-meaning adult’s attempts to inject a tiny bit of health in a holiday that promotes juvenile diabetes seems like an affront to traditional American values? This is the result of some insidious marketing, people, and we have bought into it without a second thought.
So consider this post my second thought. I’d like to think that we could cut candy out of our lives completely. I’m admitting that we’re powerless, but I don’t know how ready I am for us to make amends. Any suggestions? I’m curious to hear from other parents who have developed strategies for avoiding the cheap refined sugars of candy without turning their children’s lives into funless wastelands of boredom. But I know that the rampaging sugar monster that got loose in our house last night is no longer welcome. It is time for us to make a change for the sake of our family.