There's no fun in carrot sticks

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THERE is something wonderfully traditional about the way the headmaster of Canford School in Dorset reacted to the pounds 7.7m windfall from the sale of the school tuck shop's Assyrian carving. Each pupil, he said, will be given a free Mars bar.

This small gesture encapsulates the way sweets are dished out by adults to children, for their enjoyment, as a reward, and sometimes as means of control. It is a reaction that seems impervious both to the passage of time and to mounting concern about the poor quality of many children's diets.

I only hope that the Canford pupils have understanding dentists. For even if dentists succeed in their campaign, announced this week, to impose a 10 per cent tax on sweets, it is quite clear that the newly enriched school will not be priced out of this market: it will be able to pay for Mars bars galore, for generations to come.

Most parents probably find the current debate about sweets, crisps and trips to McDonald's perplexing. I freely admit that my children eat sweets and junk food more frequently than I would wish, just as they watch more television than I really approve of. But how do you strike a balance on the pleasant temptations that are the natural condition of modern childhood?

A new parent can insist that a baby or toddler eats only unsweetened yoghurt, or withhold the sugar from the Rice Krispies as a matter of course, but once children go to school, make friends, and have their own pocket money to spend your control is weakened.

My five-year-old seems to attend a birthday party most weekends. These traditionally end with a party bag to take home - the best bit, as far as my daughter is concerned. The bags always include scaled-down versions of popular sweets.

When we held our party I went, reluctantly, to the supermarket, where you buy these treats by the pound, and followed suit. Should I have made a stand and opted for a few carrot sticks, a packet of raisins and an apple - and upset all my daughter's friends? I salved my conscience by reminding myself that adults, even health-conscious ones, eat sweets, too: a box of chocolates is widely accepted as being a friendly gift.

But while I strive, in an uncertain way, to protect my children's teeth, by buying huge quantities of fruit, serving strawberries without sugar, and insisting on regular tooth brushing, I have noticed how little effort to instil healthy eating habits takes place at school. Canford School, for instance, has a tuck shop. But shouldn't such archaic centres of temptation and commerce be drummed out of existence?

Primary schoolchildren are subjected to fierce campaigns about the serious health implications of smoking and drugs, and lap up the messages earnestly. My elder two children took the anti-smoking material so seriously that they have managed to terrorise my husband into partially giving up. They patrol ashtrays, and they design and pin up special anti-smoking posters. After so much pester power he retreats behind the garden shed when the craving gets too much.

I questioned my daughter this week about whether schools should do more anti-sweet campaigning. She looked at me witheringly. 'Sweets are nice, children eat them because they enjoy them. They are nothing to do with teachers.'

A School Meals Survey published last month by the school caterers' Gardner Merchant has produced statistical evidence of our failure to guide children. It found that more than a million schoolchildren had no classroom guidance about eating sensibly. And it identified a widespread blind spot: children snack throughout the day on crisps, sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks, yet still believe they have a healthy diet.

I've been trying to interest my children in the McDonald's debate aroused by the current libel case about the hamburger chain's allegedly grim impact on society. I drew another blank. All the children I know love going to McDonald's: they regard it as a treat well worth nagging for. My only defence is to eke out the visits, so that the ingestion of Big Macs and cheeseburgers and fries is balanced by home cooking. But, in all fairness to McDonald's, where else in the UK can you find cheap, child-friendly restaurants producing finger food which is instantly palatable to pernickety children tired and scratchy after a morning's shopping?

A SHOP assistant failed to remove a security tag from an item I had bought the other day. I set off the automatic alarm at the doorway and was hauled back inside. If we can put tags on pounds 20 sweatshirts, why not place them on the wrists of infinitely more precious newborn infants? Traditionally, hospitals have placed plastic name tags on babies in the delivery room. A more sophisticated electronic tag, such as those being tested in Edinburgh, would not be such an intrusion. If this reform were introduced, then the parents of Abbie Humphries would not have suffered totally in vain.