In the morning, my kids find my stash of Fruit Loops and beg for a bowl.
“We eat only healthy cereal in the morning,” I respond.
“I hate healthy,” Benjamin (7) says. “I promise not to ask for anything sweet tonight.”
“Maybe later,” I reason, mad that I didn’t hide the cereal better.
Jacob (3) shouts, “I waaaant Fwoot Looooops nowwww!” He slumps below the table and fakes a good cry.
I pick him up, saying, “Some bugs got into the box and now it’s disgusting.”
Both my kids stare at me. Benjamin says, “You’re telling a fib.”
That’s when I pull out Toucan Sam’s best and pour two small helpings.
At a restaurant for lunch, my children refuse to eat their grilled cheese, opting to slurp the cup of lemonade the pleasant server keeps filling.
“If you don’t eat the sandwiches, there will be no sundaes,” I warn.
The kids spout “it’s not fair” comments before they submit to nibble their cheese with the enthusiasm of prom queens dancing with the school nerd.
Later, I return from the bathroom to find the boys gobbling ice cream.
“They never finished their food,” I tell my wife.
Wendy frowns, struggling to nurse Baby Ari with some decorum at the table, “They wore me down.”
At dinner, Jacob announces his dessert choice the moment his bow-tie pasta hits the placemat. “I’m having Shrek fruit snacks,” he says.
“Eat your meal, then we’ll discuss dessert,” I command.
I want cookie-dough ice cream,” Benjamin offers.
Jacob starts up again, “I want ice cream AND Shrek fruit snacks…”
Our issues with sweets didn’t begin this way. More than six years ago, when Benjamin started on solid food, Wendy and I kept refined sugar out of his diet like health-food militants. We were so successful that he wailed for extra broccoli, thinking the vegetable was actually a dessert.
By the time Benjamin learned to walk, and could snag M&Ms from dishes at friends’ homes, our days as sugar-fascists ended. We couldn’t fight the birthday parties of cake and favor bags full of Dum Dumsï¿½ nor could we deny sweets-bearing grandparents. Once Jacob came along, he was consuming chocolate bundt cake for breakfast even before his first birthday.
We still attempt to limit the sugar – we ration Halloween treats till December — but we give in a lot, partly because we accept the short-term happiness provided by sweets. We also have our own habits, formed by candy-filled childhoods.
Wendy has fond memories of being conned to drink her milk by a grandmother who dropped a Hershey’s chunk at the bottom of the glass. I remember loving goodies so much that my sister and I would have “candy races” in which the winner was the one who had something left over when the other person finished.
This is the game my sons play – as we return to the Day of Sugar previously in progress. Benjamin neatly lines up his chewies by color. Jacob does the same. Then, each boy tries every trick in the book, from palming a few bites behind his back to putting some in his pocket. This makes Wendy crazy as the game delays bathtime.
“Why did you tell them how to play this stupid race!” she says. Then she turns to the boys: “That’s it, no more desserts – ever! I’m throwing everything out!”
Benjamin hides his face as if he’s been told he’s moving to a foster home. Jacob runs around hysterically like a boy lost in a department store.
I try to reason: “Forget the kids. Can you live without candy in this house?”
To which Wendy breaks down and hugs the children: “Mommy lost her mind for a moment. We can have sweets, but we need new rules.”
In short order, we decide on no desserts for Tuesdays and Thursdays and no candy on a night when a child throws a tantrum. Our kids seem humbled by our decree, which makes us think we finally got it right.
At bedtime, I tuck Benjamin in and ask him, “What’s your favorite thing to do in the whole world?”
“Eat candy,” he says.
Jacob sits up from his lower bunk to chime, “Can I have some candy now?”
I slink from the bedroom with a half-hearted, “Good night.”
Upon seeing my wife, she asks me why I look dejected. “For all the years of building train sets, going on vacations, and running all over amusement parks,” I explain, “our sons would prefer I replace myself with a vending machine filled with Skittles.”
She laughs, “You know they love you like crazy.”
My dejection fades. I realize my efforts to curb their sugar intake are better than I usually think. With a combination of permissiveness and limitation, I have a beautiful relationship with my sons. For me, that’s the sweetest reward.