Never turn your back on the blueberry parfaits

Can I help? By Penny Sinclair, child psychotherapist
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The Independent Online
Esme had her first session with the dentist this week. Luckily, I'd previously taken her to the surgery for several familiarisation trips, so she and the dentist had developed a useful and mutually beneficial inter-personal contact plateau.

The dentist, Roger, was very positive about letting Esme look at her cavities in the mirror. He said that her teeth were in remarkable condition for one so young. It's nice to get a pat on the back now and then.

I feel a little proud - mums, never let yourselves become too complacent - that Esme has reached the age of five without any major root canal treatment and fewer than a dozen fillings. I put it down to my careful handling of what I call the emotional approach to sweets.

Topical tip time: never let sweets become part of a pleasure ritual. I only very occasionally give "lucky bags", and then only for hurt feelings and banged knees. If you are not careful, children come to expect what we professionals refer to as "payment in sweets". Most important, mums and live-in partners, don't forget you are sweet-eating role models for the kids. Chris chews gum all day as a way of relieving tension. Now he is back in Namibia he speaks to the kids on the phone once a week. I make absolutely sure he takes the gum out of his mouth before he starts talking.

Me: "By chewing all the time you are in danger of demonstrating to the kids that an empty mouth is an empty life."

Chris: "They can't even see whether I'm chewing."

Me: "Don't give me that, Chris! They can hear you quite plainly ... Hello?" The telephone lines from Namibia have been particularly bad these past few weeks.

I admit Chris was very good when Timon was small. He agreed to keep his jaws still when Timon was in the room. Do you know that for the first four years of his life Timon never even knew that sweets existed? It was hard work, but we managed to distract him with sweet-substitutes called "liquorice allsorts".

But in this pernicious world the kids will discover sweets eventually. Your next job, mums, is to nurture a relaxed attitude to sweet-eating. When Chris is here we often get the munchies in the evening and open a box of chocs. But we make sure it's all very casual. As a mum, you must devote every last breath in your body to never letting your kids see you exhibiting obsessive behaviour.

Chris, showing me the box: "You've scoffed the last blueberry parfait."

Me: "I don't mind if I do."

Chris: "No. I said you've left me with the nutty ones."

Me: "You know me, Chris. I'm as happy with the blueberry parfaits as I am with nutty ones."

I have developed my own special programme for cultivating indifference to sweets. I place a large bowl of sweets on the table at meal times. This way the kids familiarise themselves with the sight of sweets; but they are prevented from eating them by wire-netting placed judiciously over the top. Then you can try some role-playing. Persuade the kids to walk nonchalantly past the bowl singing: "We Don't Need No Sweets" (try putting it to the seminal "We Don't Need No Education" tune by Pink Floyd, who were themselves named after a dental mouthwash).

Last Tuesday I rang our new neighbour Nicky to ask her three little boys over for tea. As a special treat I allowed all five of them to handle Gran's false teeth so that they could have some direct contact with the tooth experience. They had great fun "biting" the wholewheat pancakes, though I had to stop Timon nipping the nose off the eldest boy in fun. But just as I was getting the kids into line for a walk-past, Timon dropped the teeth. As I was attempting to retrieve them from under the table there was a scuffle and the bowl of sweeties disappeared.

At first I was a little disappointed - imagine it, mums, every single blueberry parfait gone! But I had to eat my words when I discovered that they'd only taken the sweets in order to carry out dental research. Timon explained that he had eaten all 20 sweets - five chewed back left, five chewed front right, five chewed in middle etc - in order to witness the creation of cavities first-hand.

Things weren't so positive with Nicky. I have had to ask her several times to return Gran's teeth. I thought I spotted them hanging up with Timon's knives, but he swore he saw the eldest boy pocketing them. When I approached Nicky for the third time, she turned her back on me. It finally dawned on me - get with it, Penny! - she must be wearing them!

"Poor dentition is nothing to be ashamed of," I shouted after her reassuringly, as she rushed towards the car. An exhausting day learning all about teeth - and, just this once, well worth a family box of Quality Street as a reward.