CANDY GIRL: How Have I Managed to Avoid A Life of Crime?

pumpkin

I'm a pumpkin, not a risk factor for future criminal behavior!

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.

2 responses to “CANDY GIRL: How Have I Managed to Avoid A Life of Crime?

  1. MythReindeer

    This is very reminiscent of the fallout of the marshmallow tests conducted by Walter Mischel at Standford back in the 1960s. Using marshmallows (or, in a more devious version, Oreo cookies) as bait, Mischel and his colleagues tested how long 4 years old children could hold out when left alone in a room with the treat. Years later, following up with these kids in their late teen years found that those that held out longer against the marshmallow temptation got higher SAT scores, were reported to be better behaved, went to better colleges, and other sorts of things. Those that had less willpower generally were more likely to become bullies, have problems in school, etc. The correlations even extend into later life, in terms of quality of jobs, etc. It seems that the children with “more willpower” actually had better tricks to distract themselves from O GOD IT LOOKS SO DELICIOUS. They’d sing songs, or pretend the treat was something else, or kick their chairs, anything to get their minds on something else–impulse control for young’ns. Of course, Mischel himself doesn’t draw any hard conclusions from it in terms of the nature/nurture issues inherent in these things, but maybe giving young children candy ad libitum doesn’t teach them much about deferred gratification. Less willpower, less impulse control, etc…and later they don’t think about the ramifications of criminal behavior? I dunno, but it’s interesting to think about.

    On a tangent: science doesn’t support everyone’s mom ever on the whole “sugar rush” issue. This is the first result for Google-ing “sugar rush myth,” http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2747/does-giving-sweets-to-kids-produce-a-sugar-rush An article in Science it ain’t, but it gives a number of places to look for harder info. I never experienced it much myself.

  2. MythReindeer

    ^^^holy crap that was long

    my bad

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