Should you just let your kids eat as much of their Halloween candy as they want?
An article on Times.com by Samira Kawash, an author with a degree in literary studies, suggests that parents go ahead and let children have the whole bag of candy on Halloween. After all, she says, that will help them learn self-regulation without grown ups forcing the issue. Kawash writes, “When you take away your child’s candy, you are saying that the candy is too dangerous for him or her to handle. That she needs adult protection from her own desire to eat it. That she can’t be trusted to figure out on her own how to manage her candy.”
In fact, Kawash thinks that it’s not just the teeth that are at risk of cavities; children who aren’t allowed to set their own limits are at risk for drug abuse. Kawash states, “Instead of eating candy, it’s going to be smoking cigarettes, experimenting with drugs, taking sexual risks, getting drunk. We want to protect our kids from those things too. Here’s the problem: protection, control and prohibition rely on the superior power of the adult.”
While that is a very egalitarian notion, the idea that kids are little adults, cognitively and emotionally equal to adults, is not supported by social-psychological research.
Social Learning Theory
Social Learning Theory states that children lean by modeling the behavior of those around them, rather than by learning in a vacuum. Albert Bandura, the psychologist behind the theory, believed that “observation, imitation, and modeling” were the ways that children learned.
Research into smoking and drinking in adolescence indicates that social factors are more important than biological factors such as genetics. Richard Rende, PhD of Brown University et al. write “that sibling contact and mutual friendships represent a source of social contagion for adolescent smoking and drinking independent of genetic relatedness.” In other words, even in studies of siblings, social learning was more important than sheer genetics.
Parents have an opportunity to be the people their children model. Rather than handing the candy, and the responsibility, to the child, parents should model how to set limits, delay gratification, and sensibly consume sweets, and by extension, alcohol.
Kawash’s argument also ignores basic facts about the development of the frontal lobes. Strictly speaking, until individuals are in their early twenties, the frontal lobes of their brain, where emotion and self-regulation are kept, are undeveloped. Drs. Catherine Lebel and Christian Beaulieu looked at brain scans and discovered “evidence for continued white matter “wiring” development after adolescence, particularly for frontal lobe connections.” In other words, brains continue to form into early adulthood. Children simply are not biologically prepared to self-regulate, and a parent that advocates allowing children free reign is unrealistic.
Teach Kids Responsibility: But Not By Letting Them Run Amuck
Kawash concludes that, “But the earlier you start teaching your kids to see themselves as responsible, capable persons, the easier it will be in the long run. Give your children the tools and confidence they need to make it on their own. It may be harder to hand over that enormous orange bucket, but it’s the right thing to do.”
In contrast, science tells us the right thing to do is to help your child understand the reasons for parceling out the candy in small amounts, modeling the same restraint yourself, and praising you kids for their grasp of the concept. Kids aren’t born “responsible, capable persons.” As parents, we teach them to be responsible through modeling, and they grow to be more responsible over time as their brains develop.
Deadly, M. et al. Social Influence, Addictions and the Internet: The Potential of Web 2.0 Technology in Enhancing Treatment for Alcohol/Other Drug Use Problems. (2012). Addiction: Research and Recovery. Accessed October 31, 2013.
Learning Theories.com. Social Learning Theory (Bandura). (2007–2013). Accessed October 31, 2013.
Lebel, C. and C. Beaulieu. Longitudinal Development of Human Brain Wiring Continues from Childhood into Adulthood. (2011). Journal of Neuroscience.
Kawash, S. Controlling Your Kids’ Candy Stash Is Bad Parenting: Children need to learn how to manage temptation on their own. (2013). Time.com. Accessed October 31, 2013.
Rende, R. et al. Sibling Effects on Substance Use in Adolescence: Social Contagion and Genetic Relatedness. (2005). Journal of Family Psychology.