Sugar. It’s a problem–cane, processed, high-fructose-it’s all the same or rather it all has the same effect. In the two times that our foster son has consumed sugar in any real quantity, the results were remarkable, but not in a good way. At a birthday party for one of our neighbors, he ran around charming everyone with his dimples and curly hair. He was in his element and was at a phase where his stranger anxiety was minimal. So when the birthday cake came out we gave him a few bites, and so did everyone else. While we kept an eye on him, we did not keep an eye on just how much cake he was inhaling. It was only his second brush with sweets. For his first birthday he had a chocolate cupcake, but he didn’t really get it. He only had a few teeth and wasn’t eating a lot of solid food yet, so the cupcake was more odd than good; ended up more on his face than in his mouth.
After the party at our neighbors we returned home to a child we had never met before. We were in his room and he started jumping and flailing on the floor, all sugary happiness, but in a bizarre way. He would bounce around like a pinball running into us and the crib and the wall as if we were all bumpers propelling him back into the center of the room. He wasn’t walking that well yet so we tried to keep him on the rug so he wouldn’t hurt himself. He kept launching himself into the air and then flipping around on the floor. His face contorted with this crooked smile that looked like he was about to cry. (Did he wonder what had taken hold of him and when it would ever stop?) It wasn’t so much amusing as it was disturbing. This was not our child. How could a little cake have such an impact on him? I wondered later whether it was just an adverse reaction for a little guy with a little metabolism or whether this was what all kids experienced when they downed a bottle of chocolate milk or one too many donuts. Is this something he would grow out of or would we always be chasing after him at birthday parties trying to replace his piece of sugary-yellow cake, white icing and sprinkles with an apple.
We refrained from giving him any significant amounts of processed sugar for months. We even managed to get through Halloween without a sugar implosion due to a little parental stealth. It didn’t hurt that he was so enamored with his own costume and getting to say “trick or treat,” that he didn’t pay close attention to the contents of the ubiquitous plastic orange pumpkin that he had been carrying around all night. Let’s just say that he made a nice contribution to his Papa’s overall Halloween haul. While visiting us for the holidays, my sister sweetly asked about Halloween and when I told her that our son didn’t have any candy, she scowled and said, “not even one piece?” And after having spent the entire day chasing the little guy around, I asked her if she would like to do it again only after he had eaten several pieces of candy. She laughed and shook her head.
Then last weekend the holiday season began–tree-lightings, eggnog punch, Santa’s lap and sweets–LOTS of sweets. In our village center there was a church bizarre, sorry, I meant bazaar. This was no ordinary church event. It was an old church with people who looked like they had been parishioners for decades, maybe lifetimes. It was such a throwback to the times when I was dragged to church by my mother. There were lots o’ sugary opportunities there: jams and jellies, cakes, cookies, fudge, candy canes–all tempting, all bad, oh, so very bad. We bumped into friends who shared this humungous cookie with our son, then we dads bought a couple of slices of chocolate cake and he immediately started pointing wildly, “a-this, a-this, a-this,” which in translation means give me some of that there food you got in your hands. We shrugged our shoulders to both the cookie and the cake and hoped for the best. I wondered about his body being better able to handle the little bit of sugar he was consuming. We made our way up to the Christmas tree lighting and all was well. As it got darker and colder we ducked inside one of the buildings and helped ourselves to some sweet apple cider and a little hot chocolate. We stood at the base of the tree and looked at all of the colored lights. Was all well with our little sugar hop-head or was he beginning to experience some kind of tree-lit, multi-colored, psychedelic head trip?
After heading back to the car and the short drive back home we made it to the door just as the show was about to begin. Darrow put our son down in the entry-way and he immediately began jumping, and jiggling, and leaping, and shrieking, and shoved his arms straight out in front of him like he was commanding an army. His voice fell a few octaves and he became this drill sergeant and recruit, barking commands and then obeying them. He tottered around like a toy soldier, all very cute mind you but not very normal. His movements were erratic and he seemed to be possessed by a force greater than me, greater than you, unreachable, unfathomable, oh god when will it all stop?! He had become a sugar monster and while it was mildly entertaining, he was by no means cute and fuzzy like the Cookie Monster. We let his rush continue since he didn’t seem to be in danger of hurting himself or anyone else. We noticed this time though, that as the evening wore on, in addition to the flood of energy, he also seemed to be getting into trouble. He kept doing things he knew would lead to stern talks and time-outs. For the next several hours we were correcting him over and over, often for the same offenses. We wondered if what was happening to our son is something that parents who freely let their kids eat sugar, experience daily, even hourly. Give him a cookie, candy, sugary drink or soda and just let the behavior happen, so that it becomes their “normal”. How much of the “bad” behavior that parents talk about is bad because it’s sugar induced. How many other children are as sensitive to sweets as our son? How much sugar is in every diagnosis of ADHD?
It was clear that we would now become sugar freaks. We have always been the kind of parents to scour labels for bad ingredients, but we have now concluded by the overwhelming evidence that sugar is bad, a very bad thing. With such a happy charming little boy who is friendly, and silly and crazy sometimes, why would we as parents ever want him to experience these types of behavioral difficulties if he doesn’t–if we don’t have to? There will be lots of times when he gets a little ice cream or a cookie, I mean come-on, we aren’t ogre-daddies. But when it comes to his diet, at least while he is little, we will be on alert. And speaking of sugar, my sister bought him a big box of animal crackers before she left and I have been eyeing them suspiciously for the past few days. I know, I know, they’re just animal crackers….