Across the nation, parents like me are bracing for the annual sugar rush known as Halloween. I've got pounds of mini-treats to pass out to neighborhood goblins and ghouls. But many parents struggle to balance our kids' mania for sweets with a nagging feeling that all that candy can't be a good thing.
Everybody knows: Candy rots kids' teeth. Candy ruins kids' dinner. Candy makes kids fat. Any and all sugars will pitch the fragile child into a lifelong battle with diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
But a lot of this worry about children and candy isn't about candy at all. It is about whether children have a right to their own pleasure.
Consider the lollipop, the ultimate symbol of children's innocence. The sweet lollipop is a few licks from the illicit, and Lolita with her bright-red candy on a stick is just the beginning. Search online for an "all-day sucker," and you may find a kid in a candy store -- or accessories for an X-rated bachelorette party. Children's candy pleasure is unabashedly sensual, and that is part of adults' problem with it.
That could explain our abstinence approach to candy's perceived dangers. The focus on restriction suggests that there's no such thing as "safe candy." We make rules about how much of a child's Halloween haul may be retained or consumed. We bar candy from school vending machines. We prohibit children from entering drugstores after school without a parent. We inspect their bedrooms and lockers for signs of illicit candy-eating activity -- as well as illicit drug activity, illicit smoking and anything else kids might be doing illicitly.
In the early 1900s, children had a lot more independence and more opportunities to buy and eat candy on their own. Instead of restricting treats, the reformers of the time used an approach that looks more like "scared straight" tactics. Stories and poems about candy lands seduced children, then terrified them with the horrible consequences. My favorite is "The King of Candy Land," a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who was best known for her inspirational and sentimental verses. In the poem, the candy king is exposed as "a monster, ugly and grim," and sugar-addled children suffer terribly: "Their teeth drop out and their eyes grow red, and they cannot sleep when they go to bed."
The 1950s brought the dawn of the "child-centered" family: Parents' job was to make their children happy and keep them safe, away from polio germs and communists. Most people didn't see any problem with children eating candy. Games such as "Candy Land," with its harmless sugarcoated characters, encouraged kids to dream of mountains of treats. And there were plenty of treats to be had -- not just candy but new super-sweet convenience foods. In the postwar era, kids were less likely to take their own pennies to buy jelly beans and licorice sticks, as they might have done in the 1930s and '40s. Instead, sweets came through the door in Mother's grocery sack filled with Frosted Flakes and Oreos. Candy was what kids loved, but only so long and so much as parents provided and approved.
Today, when obesity is widely viewed as the biggest threat to children's health, every kid is at risk from the dangers of unlimited sweets. Public policies focus on removing candy and soda from children's reach and substituting "safe" alternatives such as apple juice and granola bars, which, despite their virtuous wrappers, aren't all that different from the "bad" treats they replace. The gentle tolerance for children's sugar excesses that made Frosted Flakes one of the best-selling cereals in postwar America now verges on child abuse. And the notion that children might, as a century ago, be capable of self-regulation and self-control is notably absent from the passionate debates about how to protect them from food.
It might be better to assume that, when it comes to candy -- and much else -- children are people, too. Instead of treating kids as fragile, helpless, stupid creatures who will perish if we don't swaddle them in layers of social and emotional padding, we could treat them the way adults like to be treated: as intelligent beings with a strong drive for autonomy and respect. Kids need our wisdom and our knowledge. They need to learn from us what good food looks and tastes like, and how to take care of their bodies. They need to understand media and advertising's power to persuade and distort. But we should give them the freedom to learn to be themselves.