Pandemic parenting has turned us into pushovers when kids ask for sugary snacks. Which seems to happen, oh, every five minutes. Here, experts unpack the emotions (your kids’ and your own) and the science (surprise: kids are hardwired to love the stuff) to land on a sweet spot for all.

By Marisa Cohen
December 04, 2020
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From the first moment my then 15-month-old daughter, Molly, swiped a lick of her older sister’s chocolate ice cream, she did everything in her toddler power to get sweets. She cried for donuts when her grandparents babysat (of course, they gave in) and negotiated a cookie stop after preschool in exchange for an end to her whining.

This wasn’t the reaction to treats I had envisioned. In an ideal world, I’d introduce sugary foods to our kids in a natural way, in which they’d understand sweets’ place as a “sometimes” treat, sprinkled among the foods that make them grow healthy and strong. Ha! These days, sweets more often become weighted with the power of rewards: for a successful day of remote learning, for staying quiet while I’m on a work call, for finishing their broccoli. As parents, we often resort to bargaining or doing the math in our heads—okay, if she had a giant cherry lollipop at the zoo, then should we skip dessert after dinner? Will that root beer have her bouncing off the walls? If we share a brownie, does it count? All of our own emotional baggage with dieting bubbles back to the surface and complicates the situation further.

If that weren’t enough, the lockdown of 2020 threw families a new set of issues to deal with as we stayed home, with no set schedule, a pantry full of quarantine sweets (often cheaper and easier to store than fresh fruit), and a lot of anxiety to self-soothe. Where do we go from here? Parents assembled a team of doctors and nutritionists to help you hit the refresh button without triggering an epic battle of wills.

Why do kids think dessert is the most important thing on the planet?

It’s a combo of biology and outside forces. Amniotic fluid and breast milk are both sweet, so babies are conditioned to like the taste from the get-go, says Parents advisor Jill Castle, R.D.N., a pediatric dietitian in New Canaan, Connecticut. There’s also an evolutionary reason for their sweet tooth: “Back in the hunter-gatherer days, sweetness indicated that a food was safe to eat and bitterness indicated that it was toxic,” explains Alexis Conason, Psy.D., a New York City psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. And before kids were old enough to develop the cognitive skills that say, “Um, maybe you shouldn’t put that insect or rotting food in your mouth,” the lack of sweetness would make harmful food less appealing. What’s more, research suggests that sugar actually acts as a pain reliever in babies and small children, though not in adults, so it can literally make them feel better after an “ouchie.”

Beyond the internal cues that make kids crave sweets, there are also commercials, our national candy obsession, and the presentation of cake as the pinnacle of every party to raise sugar’s cred above all else for small children. As parents, we bring our own feelings about treats to the table. “Many of us have anxieties about desserts, and kids pick up on that from a very young age,” says Dr. Conason, author of the forthcoming book The Diet-Free Revolution.

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If sugar is in breast milk, is it really that bad for kids?

The issue is that there are different kinds of sugar; not all are equal, and they’re not always easy to detect. Natural sugars such as lactose, the primary sugar found in breast milk and dairy, and fructose, found in fruit, are a healthy part of a child’s diet. Other sugars are added to food during processing, and those are the types linked with obesity, tooth decay, and diabetes. Ideally, added sugar shouldn’t constitute more than 10 percent of your child’s diet. The math works out to about 140 calories (35 grams) of added sugar for the average preschooler, or 220 calories (55 grams) for a 12-year-old. You may think of added sugar as being found in sweets, but foods kids don’t necessarily consider to be “treats”—like pasta sauce, yogurt, juice, cereal, and oatmeal—pack extra sugar too.

“Once you combine all the added sugar eaten during meals, there’s not a lot left for the rest of the day,” says Anisha Patel, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and coauthor of the cookbook Half the Sugar, All the Love. Last year the FDA changed how food products are labeled: Instead of lumping all sugars together, labels now list added sugars separately. If you start reading labels and making swaps, a daily treat can fit within the guidelines.

What’s the harm in using dessert as a bribe for eating vegetables? (After all, it’s what my parents did.)

Over time, setting up one food as the “chore” and the other as the “reward” can create an unhealthy imbalance. “If you’re using sweets to motivate vegetable eating, sweets become much more important than vegetables,” says Castle. “In the long run, that changes the child’s preferences and perception of food.” It also interferes with a child’s ability to know their own hunger, says Maryann Jacobsen, R.D., of San Diego, author of How to Raise a Mindful Eater. “Kids need to listen to their feelings of hunger and fullness, and when we say, ‘You have to eat this to get that,’ they’re not really listening to it, and as they get older they can have trouble regulating their food intake.”

One strategy to level the playing field is to serve everything together, says Dr. Conason, who recommends putting a few cookies on the table with dinner, so the child can choose to have a bite of cookie, then a bite of chicken, then a bite of broccoli. “This gives all the food equal value and removes the idea of a reward from the dessert,” she says.

As for using sweets as a prize for good behavior, that sets up a tricky dynamic. Studies have shown that this actually dilutes any personal satisfaction kids get from doing something well and makes it all about the reward. Dr. Patel suggests putting the focus back on the good behavior by offering abundant praise. “If your child is behaving very nicely at the doctor’s office while you’re waiting, say, ‘You’re doing such a great job sitting here. Mommy is so proud of you!’ ” she says. Castle also points out that by separating food from the emotions of a reward, it sets up better eating habits as your children get older. “If you add that emotional value to it, they’ll turn to food when they’re sad or mad. The emotional connection to food can be the underpinning of the drive toward sweets for adults as well as children,” she says.

I usually wait to eat a bowl of ice cream until the kids are in bed so they don’t see me and ask for some. Good idea or bad?

If you prefer to eat dessert peacefully while watching Netflix after your kids have gone to sleep so you can actually enjoy it without being interrupted a million times, that’s understandable. But be open about it. While your kids are eating their dessert, you can say, “I’m not hungry right now, so I will save my dessert for later when my belly tells me it wants it.” “You need to model that it’s okay to have sweets, as this shows children how to self-regulate and balance foods,” Castle says.

But if you’re sneaking ice cream just so the kids won’t see you eating a fattening food, you may want to reconsider. That sends the message that sweets are bad, or taboo, conversely making them more desirable. “When we have a healthy relationship with food, why would we hide what we’re eating?” says Dr. Conason. She adds that if you’re dealing with your own complex feelings about food, raising children is the perfect incentive to make a change, so speak with a therapist or a nutritionist to come up with a healthy plan.

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I’m afraid that if I start saying no more often to my kids’ requests for treats, they’re going to throw a fit. Suggestions?

There are a couple of good strategies for reducing the wheeling and dealing when it comes to treats. First of all, be conscious of how many and what type of sweets you keep in the house, and don’t hide them. Just as they do with Christmas presents, kids have a knack for finding all your secret spots. Dr. Conason points out that a theory developed by Ellyn Satter, called “division of responsibility,” encourages parents to choose the snack, the place, and the time (say, right after remote school), but to allow the child to choose if they want to eat and how much. “This takes the power dynamic out of eating,” she says. It also helps the child understand how much they’re really hungry for.

Second, consider how you talk about sweets in front of your kid. Keep it casual and fun and in line with all other expectations, says Castle. “If you’re overdoing the conversation about sweets, kids sense this is something you’re really worried about and need to control,” she says. Nutritionist Wintana Kiros, R.D.N., founder of ResetLifestyle.com, takes it a step further by getting her kids excited about nutritious food: “I tell my boys stories about the G buddies—gut buddies—who live in their bellies and need a variety of nourishing food, including fruit, vegetables, and protein, to stay strong so the kids can do the things they love. My son really gets it. He said, ‘Oh, if my gut buddies are strong, I can jump high!’ ”

I haven’t given my toddler any treats yet. How should I introduce them?

If you’ve made it to your child’s second birthday without their having sugary treats, congrats (and, seriously, how did you do you it?). “I’d be more worried about my kids getting messages about restricting sweets than about having a little sugar,” says Dr. Conason. If you want to introduce them now, just keep it totally casual, offering a cookie or a scoop of ice cream with a meal or as a snack. Kiros recommends pairing treats with something more nutritious. “I give my boys, who are 3 and 5, two cookies as an afternoon snack, but I always serve milk, yogurt, or cheese as well so there is something else to fill them up.”

I’ve got the treat situation under control at home. But what do I do when the grandparents come over with a bag of goodies or my kid goes to a party where it’s sweets galore?

It’s one of those crazy laws of grandparenting: No matter how much you insisted on feeding your kids only healthy, nutritious snacks, all the rules go out the window when you become Nana or Pop-Pop. “After decades of parenting, most of us realize that an ice-cream cone isn’t going to hurt anyone—even if it’s before dinner!” says child-development expert Robin Goldstein, Ph.D., of Potomac, Maryland. “The relationship is about having fun and filling them with joy, and it’s hard for grandparents to hold back from wanting to please their grandchildren.” The experts agree that as long as you’re teaching your children a balance at home and not restricting sweets to the point where your kids lose control when they can finally have them, a few extra donuts with Grandma or an invitation to a candy-fueled birthday party is nothing to worry about.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine’s January 2021 issue as “The Psychology of Treats.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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