Am I a bad parent if I give my kids candy?

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 10/30/2013, 1:08 p.m.
very Halloween, I get the same questions from parents: "Should I let my kids have candy?" "How much candy is ...
Mark Burhenne is a practicing family and cosmetic dentist of 25 years and founder of AsktheDentist.com. He is dedicated to empowering people to take control of their dental health, stop managing symptoms and prevent chronic illnesses in the mouth.

By Dr. Mark Burhenne

Special to CNN

Every Halloween, I get the same questions from parents:

"Should I let my kids have candy?"

"How much candy is safe?"

And a question not necessarily tied to Halloween: "How can I raise my kids with healthy habits but also without making them feeling deprived?"

The answer isn't simple. All the focus is on the candy we eat once a year at Halloween when we eat even worse foods all year long.

My opinion as a dentist has evolved over the last 25 years, and it continues to evolve as I learn from my patients and from my own children.

To begin to answer this question, we first need to understand: How bad is candy, really?

The effects of candy on our children are twofold. There are biological effects that we all know about, such as the adage "candy rots your teeth," but there are also psychological effects of binging on all that well-marketed candy.

The effect candy has on your kids' teeth

The increased consumption of sugar in our culture is linked to diabetes and obesity. Consider:

• Sugar is changing our children's taste buds. By exposing our kids to sugar-laden foods, we are corrupting their taste for the sweetness in fresh fruit and "superfeeding" the bacteria that cause tooth decay.

• "Just this once" actually has a lasting effect. So what's the big deal if your children binge on candy just once a year? That one binge may lead to an altered taste sensitivity, which can lead to cravings for other things. Those things might include soda, which we know is linked to increased risk of diabetes, obesity and other health issues.

Sugar addiction has also been shown to activate the same parts of the brain as cocaine addiction. Would we let our children have cocaine "just once" each year? In this way, Halloween candy may be a gateway to serious system diseases.

• Candy plays a role in your children's future dental health. The effects of candy have compounding ramifications as children get older. The more tooth damage that occurs, the earlier people have issues with their teeth as adults in terms of crowns, root canals, extractions or implants -- or all of the above.

By delaying damage during childhood and the adolescent years, you bypass a crucial and vulnerable time in life. Children are more vulnerable to the effects of candy than adults because they often aren't aware of the ramifications (such as a $1,400 root canal that comes later in life), and they don't brush, floss and take other actions to negate the effects of bad decisions. The exposure your children have to candy and the habits they form will determine their dental future.

Beyond the teeth

Perhaps just as concerning as the damage to the teeth are the psychological effects of all this candy. Those include:

• It's an unhealthy message. All year long, we tell our children, "Don't take candy from strangers." But isn't Halloween asking them to do just that, making an exception? What if that confusing and conflicting message were to jeopardize a child's safety one day?