The measure of a great Halloween, for most kids, is the size of their haul. Parents may try to figure out how to minimize the damage. But believe it or not, having to deal with an abundance of candy can be a good thing for a kid’s health—with a bit of parental guidance. Here’s how Halloween’s over-the-top sweetness can be a rich learning opportunity for your kids about health and wellness.
It teaches them delayed gratification. Think of this as the “good-things-come-to-those-who-wait” rule. Delayed gratification (also called impulse control) is directly linked to academic success, psychological stability, dependability and a lower risk of obesity later in life. “It can be taught, and a Halloween haul creates an ideal environment to hone these skills,” says Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatric obesity expert and author of Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right. The classic scenario is to ask a child to wait to eat something, such as a marshmallow. If the child succeeds in waiting, he gets two marshmallows. “The same thing can be done with a child choosing to eat three, rather than four, pieces of candy,” Dr. Dolgoff says, the “reward” in this case being a greater sense of self-control. Or you can offer your children the opportunity to trade candy for a bigger, better (non-edible) treat.
It makes them more discriminating. “Kids usually know what candy they love and what candy they merely like,” says Dr. Meghan Line, a pediatric psychologist with Nemours Children’s Hospital, in Baltimore. For some kids, especially those who are overweight, making a choice to eat only the candy they really love can be an exercise in self-awareness, she says. “It helps them to think about what really is important if things are limited.”
It allows them to practice sharing. Sharing doesn’t come easily to most kids, but you can help them develop the habit, says Dr. Dolgoff. “I tell my patients, you don’t have to eat all of it, you can give some it away.” Let the child select a “neutral” or less-desired candy to give away and reward the behavior with praise. Make sharing a positive experience for your child and it will be easier the next time around.
It short-circuits feelings of deprivation. Restricting children's access to "forbidden" foods can make kids feel deprived and crave treats even more so that they overindulge whenever they get the chance. So even the doctor-moms who treat childhood obesity permit their kids liberal access to goodies on this one special night. “I let them have as much as they want, within reason,” Dr. Dolgoff says. “I won’t let them get nauseated from it, but they certainly get to have much more than usual.” They have to eat a healthy dinner before going trick or treating, however. And when the night is over, the rest of the candy is rationed out, over time.
It helps you teach nutritional balance. Halloween is a good time to talk with your kids about why you cannot live on candy alone, says Dr. Line. “One night of candy isn’t going to make or break anything, but it is an opportunity for us to think and talk about what we are doing the other 364 days of the year in terms of nutrition,” she says.
It provides an opportunity for honest discussion. Do you wait for your kids to go to bed so you can break into the stash? “I have a lot of parents like that,” Dr. Dolgoff says. “Your kids notice what you are doing. What you are doing matters.” Parents need to be role models, even when they are struggling with the same issues, she says. “I think it is great when the parent tells her child that she is having a hard time controlling herself, too,” she says. “The child realizes he is not alone in this. The parent can then model the behavior, and the family can say, ‘We can work on this together.’”
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