Tuesday, June 16, 2009

You're a bad parent if you don't feed your kids chocolate

That's my take on Kinder's new, "Have you played today" campaign".

The gist of the campaign?

Treats are an important part of parenting and so to be better parents you've got to make sure you give them treats, more specifically - Kinder chocolates.

Now it's true the chocolates are smaller than regular Kinder chocolates, but that's not really the point. The point is here's a campaign with an incredibly unique marketing pitch. Forget probiotics, omega-3 and fibre. Here we've got chocolate being pitched as a parenting tool; a pitch that suggests that you're a bad parent if you don't give them Kinder eggs.

How does it do that?

By recruiting experts to push their message.

Experts? What expert in their right mind would agree to pitch chocolate to children under the banner of good parenting?

Two in fact. Registered Dietitian Mary Bamford and child Psychologist Dr. Anthony Volk.

So what did they have to say?

When I read Mary's piece entitled, "Treating with Food: What's Okay", I learned that Mary advocates giving children 10-15% of their total daily calories in treat form and that doing so would, get this, teach them about portion control,

"For younger children, allowing around 100 calories per day as a treat allows you to teach the importance of portion control. Older children and female teens are allowed 150 to 200 calories per day and 200 to 400 calories per day for active teen boys."
More strikingly I learned that Mary doesn't seem to be aware of treats other than food as not once does she suggest that such treats exist. She also advises parents not to stress about giving their children chocolate every day because,
"The Kinder Survey reveals that 91% of dietitians agree that parents should feel comfortable including chocolate in their children’s diets on a periodic basis."
I suppose "daily" is technically "periodic". Gee thanks Mary for the sage advice of parents' own hands providing 10% of their children's daily calories as treats and backing that up with a spun-by-you statistic that clearly did not apply to the daily provision of the caloric equivalent of 1 can of Coca Cola for toddlers and small children, 2 cans of Coca Cola to teen girls and 4 cans of Coca Cola daily to teen boys

(I use Coca Cola as an example because Mary has also worked for them suggesting that sugared soda availability helps teach about choice and that it's fine for 10% of your child's daily caloric intake to come from sugar lest they become apparently sugar-crazy teenagers,
"If parents don't expose kids to things in our culture, they're going to go crazy in their teens and so really teaching them reasonable choices is a good way to go so getting 10 per cent of your calories from added sugars is quite reasonable")
And the child psychologist, what about him? He had a lot to say - 4 pieces in total. In his article, "Why Treat" he explains that giving your kids Kinder chocolate every day will:
  1. Encourage sharing between children, promoting patience, fairness, and social skills.

  2. Teach patience and perseverance.

  3. Reward positive behaviour.

  4. Encourage play.

  5. Help build positive parent-child relationships.
To his credit, unlike Mary Bamford he does suggest and support the provision of varied treats but overall hammers home this message,
"Did you know that treats of all kinds – from a special shared experience to a simple chocolate bar – can be used to help build those positive parent-child relationships? In fact, when used as part of overall positive parenting practices, treats can:

  • Show children that their parent is concerned about making them happy, and willing to do things that make them happy.
  • Set a positive mood to make a child more receptive to what a parent has to say.
  • Foster positive interactions between parents and children.
Giving and receiving treats – shared moments of joy – can help to build strong parent-child relationships.

To be clear, it's not as if my wife and I never use food treats with our own children - we surely do but certainly not every day. More importantly our food treats are never given as rewards like Kinder's purchased experts suggest. Why not? Because it's thought that rewarding with food treats (called instrumental feeding) encourages and teaches children to eat for a myriad of cues and may further their risk of eating more than they need, which is probably why in guidelines on the treatment and prevention of childhood obesity rewarding with food is explicitly cautioned against.

So when do we use food treats? Pretty much on a just because/sometimes food basis and we certainly don't link them with the completion of any activity or eating behaviour. We do however treat regularly. Treats may be "special time" with mom or dad, telling them how proud we are of them, how much we love them, warm hugs, favourite activities, etc.

Now I can only hold out hope that Dr. Volk and Mary simply didn't think their involvement with Kinder through, and certainly from Dr. Volk's quote in Sarah Schmidt's article published yesterday in the Vancouver Sun, I wonder whether or not he really understands how Big Food works its magic,
"I think we live in a consumer society, and it’s very refreshing to see companies taking interest in the welfare of children that they’re marketing to. You have to buy things for children, so for a company who wants to sell to children, I think it’s very responsible that they actually try to get experts on board"
Dr. Volk, Kinder's job is to sell chocolate. They used you to do that. Nothing refreshing about it.

[I had seen the campaign months ago but didn't look carefully enough at it. Thanks to Sarah Schmidt from Canwest for forcing me to take a closer look.]

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  1. Hilary7:21 am

    My 6 year old granddaughter was in fister care for a brief stay last year. She got quite upset because her foster mother put candy in her lunch to take to school. She was able to restrict herself, eat only one candy, and tell the foster mother that candy was not acceptible for lunch.
    She thinks it's a treat to go to McDonalds for salad!!!
    Maybe the experts should ask her what's okay for a food treat!

  2. Katkinkate8:27 am

    If you've got more than one kid of different ages/activity levels and you give the treats in proportions as deemed appropriate in the post, you'd better be prepared to give it to them separately, or weather the temper tantrum when the younger/less active kid notices their sibling has more then they do. Way to establish an inferiority complex.

  3. I have experienced that my (slender) daughter does better when we don't keep treats in the house, or she will request them all of the time.

    It's very hard as a parent to fight against all of the marketing. I hope most parents see through the marketing of these chocolates -- but these things can work their way into one's brain unconsiously.

    My (also slender) husband (I'm the fat one in our family) does tend to try to soothe our daughter with food from time to time, and I think he also does this, and I try to disassociate food from emotions for her, mostly because I know that both sides of our family carry addictive tendencies.

    Thank you for writing about this in a sensitive way.

  4. I'm a good parent because I just bought my son one of those eggs. But I freaked out when I saw the plastic inside it--how could the chemicals not leach into the chocolate?--and took it away. He was devastated.

  5. Christina11:11 am

    Yoni you are right in that the survey sent to dietitians asked if treats "periodically" were okay, not "daily". There is a guideline for Canadians that no more than 10% of daily calories should come from added sugars. But what about getting that sugar from foods that have some nutrition, such as yogurt, pudding, small home made bran muffins, etc?

  6. Anonymous11:28 am

    You know what was a treat in my childhood? a pomegranite! Never chocolate or chips.

  7. Dr. Volk1:41 pm

    As one of the experts working with Kinder on this program, I appreciate your point-of-view on this new program, but I feel it is important to clarify a few of the statements made above. This campaign is designed to help parents understand the role that treats – all treats – play in healthy child development. Treats, when given in an appropriate manner, can benefit both children and parents. But, as you indicate above, a lot of parents don’t understand how to use treats effectively (confusing a treat with a bribe, for example). As a result, I’m working with Kinder to provide parents with needed information and insight on how to treat responsibly. At the core of my message is that treats should be given sporadically (not everyday!) and that treats should be varied. These are important points that are consistently and repeatedly communicated through the articles I’ve written for the Kinder website and throughout all of my messaging.

    In your quote from my article, you left out the important sentences that followed: “When was the last time you gave your kid a treat? Not because they did something you asked them to do, or because they brought home a good report card – but just because you love them and you want them know how you feel? Give a treat today – and reap the positive rewards tomorrow.” This is very much aligned with your message about how you use treats with your own children.

    I would encourage parents to read my full articles on their own (via the link you provide), to consider your advice, and then to make their own decisions about how best to use treats – of all kinds – for their own children.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Dr. Volk.

    While I agree wholeheartedly with your messaging on treats and when/how to provide them, by lending your expert voice to Kinder helps them push chocolate as one of those treats.

    You might argue that by helping Kinder out at least you're helping parents understand how best to use treats (though I do not notice any explicit caution regarding the use of food rewards/treats in your messaging in terms of its potential contribution to childhood obesity), but I would argue that ultimately what you're doing is helping to sell chocolate.

    I would argue that in fact your articles aren't geared for the parent who's already treating with chocolate (chocolate doesn't need much help to be sold), your articles are geared (not by you of course, but rather by the marketers working for Kinder who wisely brought you on board) to try to convince parents who were not in fact treating with food/chocolate, that it's alright to do so.


  9. I work in an office with psychiatrists and psychologists. I am a nurse interested in preventing diabetes. It may be nice for a psychologist to be paid by 'big food', but it seems to me that considering the source of the pay cheque slants the information to be so formulated and molded that it comes out not quite truthful, as you have suggested, wisely. That health????? message has turned into advertising schlock just like 'HealthCheck' and Coca Cola's vitamin H2O that is meant to try to fool parents, smart people and even the kids into thinking this product is good for us. Job well done, but underhanded nonetheless. You could also say that giving your kids treats of any kind like candies or french fries or i-pods makes them feel loved and special. It does.....the issue is that good parenting actually makes happier kids, sports create happy kids, skills make kids feel successful and happy. Obesity seldom makes a kid happy. Companies are not supposed to target children in their advertising of gum, cigarettes or cereals.....but they are working hard to melt the heartstrings of the parents who are also trying to get out of the grocery store without a meltdown of their youngsters. Mahri