It’s your child’s birthday and you want to send cupcakes to school to celebrate. Unfortunately, the teacher politely informs you that “sweets are not allowed but you are welcome to bring a healthy alternative.” I’m sorry, but carrots and ranch dressing just don’t say happy birthday the same way that cupcakes with sprinkles do. So what are we (and our children) to learn from the ban on sweets at school? It is true that many of our children are overweight. With the abundance of processed sugar, salt and fat in today’s foods, health issues are a risk for young and old alike, and poor eating habits can mean a shorter life span. But what are we really teaching our children by completely banning cupcakes and other sweet treats?
Schools and the federal government are seemingly at war with sugary soft drinks, ice cream, cake and fatty foods, as they fervently try to keep them out of the mouths and stomachs of children. These efforts aim to teach children to eat a healthy, balanced diet – which is a good thing. But simply imposing rigid limitations doesn’t teach our children about good dietary habits. In fact, maintaining a zero tolerance policy for sweets is a backwards approach and may indeed end up failing. Studies show that children who are not allowed to eat any junk food at all are more likely to eat more of it when allowed access to tempting sweets and fatty foods.
Instead of prohibiting junk food, children need guidance to make sensible choices. As parents, we are responsible for teaching our children how to eat a well-balanced diet and live a life of moderation – and this is accomplished through nutritional education and our own healthy example. When kids see that their parents are able to enjoy a small treat on occasion — and not overdo it — they learn a great lesson; a small treat can be a luxury and can be enjoyed guilt-free because it is just the right amount.
A blanket prohibition on some of life’s sweet delights is not the answer to legitimate health concerns. Anyone can watch over a child’s diet to make sure they don’t have any sugar or fatty foods, but it takes patience and perseverance to teach your child how to read a nutritional label, how to recognize what a serving size looks like, how to know when they feel full, and the difference between hunger and boredom. Teaching our children to practice self-control gives them a powerful life-long survival tool. If they grow up understanding that no food is actually “forbidden” as long as the portion is reasonable, we give them the freedom to make good, normal and healthy food choices. Of course, we all want the best for our children. And sometimes, what’s best is a little cupcake with sprinkles on top.