Letting kids have fun is trick to making Halloween a treat

HAPPY EATER

October 26, 1994|By ROB KASPER

The other day, I gave myself a quiz. On Halloween, do I :(A) keep my kids from trick or treating because the event centers on candy, (B) take the candy out of my children's trick-or-treat bag and leave only the fruit and nuts, (C) check the candy to make sure the kids can eat it without choking, then let the kids eat the candy.

The correct answer was C -- let the kids enjoy the candy.

So said Ronald E. Kleinman, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. He and Michael S. Jellinek, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, have written a new book on children's eating habits called "Let Them Eat Cake!" (Villard, $20). The quiz was in the book.

A tussle over Halloween candy, he said, is one of the unnecessary food fights well-meaning parents engage in.

"Parents shouldn't be food cops," Dr. Kleinman told me the other day during a telephone interview from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he is chief of the hospital's division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition.

"It is our job as parents to provide children what they need to grow, and to steer them away from things that are truly dangerous."

Eating Halloween candy is not dangerous to health of children, Dr. Kleinman said. While candy has sugar, he said, scientists are clear on the fact that sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children. Obviously, he said, kids should not eat only candy. But eating candy at Halloween is not going to ruin a child's health.

"Halloween is a fun time for the kids," he said, adding that attempts to ban candy eating by the kids ends up doing more harm than good.

First of all, any parent who bans candy is setting up a confrontation with his child, Dr. Kleinman said. And while confrontations between parents and kids are a part of family life, parents should, he said, choose their battles wisely. "Take a hard stand over things that are truly dangerous, like not letting your child drive his bike down the white line in the middle of the street, or not putting his fingers in the electrical outlet."

Second, he said, forbidding kids to eat candy makes them think there are "good" foods and "bad" foods, an approach to nutrition that is seriously flawed. If kids are is told that candy is bad, then they begin to think that "eating candy is going to hurt them."

However, kids quickly figure out that eating candy makes them feel pretty good. And so they see that a ban on eating "bad candy" was based on a shaky foundation.

"Kids are smart," Dr. Kleinman said, especially about candy bars. Rather than labeling candy as "bad," a wiser approach to nutrition is teach kids to eat a variety of foods. And the the best way to teach that approach is by parental example, he said.

Children's dietary needs and eating habits are different than those of adults, he said.

"Children are not middle-aged people and food is not a life-and-death issue for them," he said. "From a medical viewpoint, if a child is growing normally, that child can enjoy a full, varied diet with little concern."

Now that it is OK for kids to eat candy, I wanted to know if all the rules about to what to feed your kids were off.

"Some of the old myths about food and children need to be examined," he said. "Like telling your kids they can't eat candy, or can't eat cake, or have to eat all their vegetables to get dessert."

I asked him about that last point, bribing kids with dessert. I do it regularly. Dr. Kleinman said it was a bad idea. Depriving a kid of a food, like dessert, only makes that food more important in the kid's mind, he said. So by withholding a piece of chocolate cake from my kid until he eats his green beans, I am not teaching my kid to love green beans. Instead, I am only pumping up the value of chocolate cake.

I told the doctor I would try to reform, but warned him that I came from a strong food-as-bribery tradition.

Overall, I like Dr. Kleinman's views on kids and diet. He seemed to combine both good science and good sense. When I asked him how fast the Halloween candy should be eaten, he had a ready response.

Parents should work out a deal with their kids on how much candy should be eaten each day, he said. Parents should help make the deal, he said, and so should make sure the kids stick to it. But they should not -- repeat not -- steal their kids' candy bars.

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