Maggie Alderson: When did sugar become such a big part of our kids' schooling?

When did sugar become an institutionalised part of our children’s lives?

When did the once-occasional sweet treat become some kind of human right, administered on a regular and formal basis, not just by misguided parents, but by schools and sports teams?

I first noticed this insidious trend when my daughter was in Year 2 and I found an empty packet of chocolate lollies in her school bag. At that age there was no sneaking out to a nearby shop, so I was puzzled where it had come from.

Turned out it had been a ‘reward’ from her teacher. In the classroom.

“I first noticed this insidious trend when my daughter was in Year 2 and I found an empty packet of chocolate lollies in her school bag.”

I was appalled, but my complaint about introducing sugary snacks between meals, without first checking with parents, or offering teeth cleaning opportunities, was treated with indifference by the headmaster.

Mind you, he’d clearly already marked me out as a weirdo for asking why children were routinely allowed to bring birthday cakes into the school for classmates to share.

When did that become accepted policy? It certainly wasn’t allowed when I was at school. Apart from the issue of adding to the spiralling daily sugar load, I couldn’t understand why they would allow such a disruption of the school day.

A room containing 30 six-year olds plus one big old sticky cake equals a whole load of clearing up – and a lot less learning time.

“A room containing 30 six-year olds plus one big old sticky cake equals a whole load of clearing up.”

At the same school – and all the ones they played against – sporting fixtures feature a post-match tea of universally sweet treats, from home-made cakes at best, to the very worst corn syrup catastrophes supermarkets offer and bowls of actual lollies.


It’s relentless through the school year, but the sugar culture reaches its height each year in the week before the Easter holidays, during the annual charity fundraising competition, where kids compete to raise the most for a nominated cause.

It seemed a laudable initiative when I first heard about it, until I went along on the day when parents were invited to join the fun and saw that while the kids’ stalls were fun and inventive, in every single case the reward for trying the game was the same: sugar on top of sugar on top of sugar.

Starting to feel increasingly hysterical about the impact of this sticky torrent on my child’s newly-hatched big teeth, her blood sugar and her already tenuous ability to pay attention, I contacted the head teacher with a proposal for the following year: the Tooth Fairy Award.

Maggie Alderson (Image: Instagram)

The winner would be the child who raised the most money with activities not involving sugar as a reward. I would endow the school with the Tooth Fairy Cup to present at the annual speech day and match the amount raised.

I even supplied a list of suggestions for the kind of things they could do. A dress up box to take funny photos of a popular teacher. Guess the weight of a book, the closest suggestion wins it. Using small toys as rewards rather than sweets. Bobbing for apples.

Once again the head teacher’s reaction was lukewarm to put it mildly: the children liked the current set up, he told me. Of course they did! In well-known and frequently replicated studies, lab rats have shown a similar reaction to being offered unlimited access to sugar.

Supplied with a tap of sugar solution, the poor rodents quickly become ‘addicted’ to it, the satiation centres in their hypothalamus stop working and they become obese, no longer able to tell when they’ve eaten enough.


This is not exactly a new idea. I first heard about that study when I was at uni 30 years ago and things have come a long way since then.

With the release of That Sugar Film, the popularity of the Paleo diet and the flood of glamorous high-profile cooks who advocate no-sugar living and look fabulous on it, surely public understanding of the dangers of consuming refined sugar must currently be at an all-time high.

Yet, despite this, the most central institutions in our children’s lives – their schools – persist in promoting the sugar rush and the healthiest part of their education, sport, is one of the worst offenders.

Maggie’s family playing sport on holiday. What ever happened to oranges at half time? (Image: Instagram)

It’s bonkers and I’m sick of being the ‘loony’ mum, fobbed off by head teachers too lazy to try anything different. And so I call on all parents who are as concerned as I am about the institutionalisation of sugar-based ‘treats’, to start actively lobbying schools to take the following action:

No sweet snacks to be used as rewards in any circumstances.

No more birthday cakes in class.

Stop the selling of cakes and chocolate for fundraising.

Ban the distribution of lollies after sport events.

The school sugar rush must be stopped.

Maggie Alderson is a novelist, columnist, journalist, blogger and mum. You can find her on Twitter, or visit

You can hear the Mamamia Outloud team discussing kids and sugar in this weeks episode: