Dessert and Children: The Final Frontier of Food

Few issues generate more confusion and disagreement among parents than dessert. That extra little piece of chocolate or candy is the bane of many a parent's existence, and the true moment of success for a child.

These kids know how to get what they want. Adept at reading their parents' cues, they will home in on any ambivalence about dessert to cash in on the reward. In that moment ripe for exploitation, kids will pounce on the adult who, unaware of the ambush, soon relents and allows the desired treat. And why not? The pestering inevitably gets kids more sweets and they love it.
So it's no coincidence that nothing elicits more whining and crying than being denied dessert. Every meal, snack or even moment of downtime is a child's opportunity to scavenge for ice cream or a lollipop. A day with children can often feel like fending off one sweet entreaty after another until you've been worn down to a nub of fury. The final capitulation is all too familiar: "Fine! Do what you want! Eat every piece of candy in the house!" To a purely literal child, this is a simple, if angry, invitation.
An adult, after enduring this argument countless times, will sit down, rationally, and hammer out a dessert treaty. The results are predictable: a certain number of desserts is allowed per day or per week; perhaps one type of dessert is favored over others; and often the treat is linked to finishing a meal or completing a particularly onerous chore.
If only logic had a chance! Children can dismantle the best-laid dessert plan in minutes. Their relentless attack and single-minded goal undo a parent's good intentions almost instantaneously.
Just as with choosing a healthy family diet, a logical plan is only half the battle. Reaching an acceptable approach to dessert in the household may look like the solution, but, as children are well aware, every sweet rule is made to be broken.
The conflict between a child's developmental drive for autonomy and the equally strong need for security runs rampant in the daily dessert fight. It's the older kid's version of push me-pull me growing up.
The mind of a child hellbent on the prize represents nothing more than burgeoning independence. Something clearly deemed a treat, which also elicits an array of powerful feelings in an adult, is an irresistible hot button to a child testing the limits of parental patience. The wistful apology that follows the gorge is the requisite search for reassurance, saying, in essence: "Do you still love me Mommy?"
So the second half of the battle has to address the emotional conflict children see both in their parents' struggle with dessert and in their own developmental challenges. There are two critical steps to defuse the timeless family argument, which, although simple, are not particularly obvious to the frustrated parent.
The first step for parents is to tame their own dessert demons. Dessert is not evil or bad. It isn't something to be avoided like the plague. It need not trigger a level of guilt and shame that demands a weeklong diet or even a juice cleanse.
It is best to remember that the varied, healthful diet of an omnivore includes dessert. Like everything in this meal plan, dessert comes in moderation. No one thinks a nutritious meal is comprised of solely chocolate cake. Dessert, broadly defined, is a reasonably sized sweet after a meal or perhaps an afternoon snack.
The most powerful way for children to understand this concept is through action. What a parent does communicates much more to a child than what a parent says. In this case, that means sitting down to enjoy dessert with the children.
When a child sees you happily eat a piece of cake too, dessert starts to transform from daily family squabble to part of the routine. That undoubtedly takes away much of a child's ammunition. Without a parent's weakness to attack, the heightened emotions dissipate and the child loses interest. In today's world of food, one true gift from parent to child is to wrest dessert from its powerful perch as the ultimate sin and make it just another food.
However, children still do need dessert rules, even though they will immediately try to break them. As any law-abiding society can attest, rule enforcement is infinitely more challenging than rule creation. That leads to the second step to defuse the dessert battle: once parents create the rules, stick by the rules, most of the time.
Dessert has been the reward for childhood successes and the go to punishment for bad behavior for time immemorial. Kids live and breathe ice cream, candy and cake as the barometer of a good or bad day, and not only because dessert tastes good. The joy of pushing a parent to the breaking point and reveling in the extra treat is the real goal. Children get enormous gratification from pushing the rules until the parent breaks them.
In futile retaliation, the parent will then modify the rules to cover for their abject failure. In that moment of panic, dessert can magically be linked to any parental demand just so the adult can blindly reassert some power. Once the rules have changed, all children know the game is over. They have won.
Parents don't need to change the rules. They need to change the game. The answer is to approach dessert rules as a wise and thoughtful judge, not a hardened cop.
If the family dessert is laden with guilt and shame, thoughtless cop parenting is the only way out, but children know blind rule following when they see it. When dessert has become just another type of food, separate from punishment, reward or conflict, shifting the rules means something very different.
In the adult world, kids know that dessert can be a pastry for breakfast, something after lunch, midday or after dinner. The actual rules are arbitrary. They are guidelines to give children a way to learn how to eat.
The cop parent will follow the hard line: these are the rules and don't break them. A child finds that approach irresistible and will inevitably find a way to flout the rules. The wise judge parent will, unemotionally, follow the rules but can offer moments when the unexpected dessert becomes a regular part of life. That may involve stopping for dessert on a whim one afternoon or a special family dessert one evening. If these treats are emotion-free, the rules transform into guidelines, and the occasional deviation becomes a way to share something fun together.
An image that brings joy and a burst of nostalgia to many adults is the gleeful child, drenched in melting chocolate, licking an ice cream cone in summer. It is the rare adult who is able to replicate the same experience. Finding a place of sanity with dessert in the family can preserve these moments every child deserves.
The next and last post in this series will address how to discuss weight with children.

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