by Sara Mead [finally, a post bringing together my two passions–candy and child development. Unfortunately, the news is rather distressing…]
We know it rots the teeth, makes children bounce of the walls like little hellions, and most likely contributes to childhood obesity–But is it possible that high rates of candy consumption in childhood also predict later criminal behavior?
That’s the finding of a new study, from Cardiff University’s Violence & Society Research Group, that’s getting some press attention this week. Researchers found a correlation between reported daily candy consumption at age 10, and having been convicted of a violent crime by age 34. The correlation held up even after researchers controlled for family income, parental permissiveness, and other factors that could predict later criminal behavior.
There are several possible explanations for this finding:
One possibility is that candy consumption itself did increase children’s propensity to violent criminal behavior, either because too much sugar affected children’s development, or because eating more candy meant they ate less of other foods containing healthy nutrients.
Another possibility–and the researchers’ hypothesis–is that greater candy consumption by children indicates less parental or self-discipline, which translates to poorer impulse control in adulthood.
A third possibility is that parents tend to allow more disruptive children to eat more candy, either because they have to pick their battles, or in an attempt to buy off good behavior, making greater candy consumption an effect rather than cause here.
With Halloween–and the accompanying sugar highs–just around the corner, should these findings put a damper on kids’ enjoyment of the sweetest day of the year?
I’m going to say no. It’s important to keep in mind that, while this study establishes a correlation between candy consumption at 10 and criminal history at 34, the design is not one that allows causality to be established.
More importantly, like many studies that get a lot of press attention, this one–while interesting–probably doesn’t have any practical implications you couldn’t get from common sense and existing evidence about child development and food.
- We already know that too much candy is bad for kids’ teeth.
- We know that consuming a lot of sugar early in life can affect children’s lifelong taste for sweets and potentially set them up for later weight problems.
- We also know that responsible parents provide structure for their children, provide them an adequate supply of healthy foods to eat, and set reasonable limits–including limits on candy consumption.
- We know that the kind of chaotic lifestyle in which candy or other junk food regularly substitutes for meals is bad for both adults and especially children.
- We know that making a habit of using candy or other food to bribe children into good behavior is problematic.
- And we also know that overly controlling or restricting children’s food consumption can have negative consequences (although it is sometimes necessary for children with unusual dietary needs/severe food allergies/etc).
If parents already know these things and try to behave accordingly, I’m not sure this study has any particularly novel practical implications for them. And if they don’t, I’m not sure this study will make that much difference. So relax–your child’s bag of Halloween candy isn’t going to turn him or her into a criminal. Just remember that both children and grown-ups should enjoy candy in moderation, in the context of a diverse and healthy diet, and because it’s tasty, not as a reward for good behavior.