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Binary Man: Dessert--Right Or Privilege?

Binary Man has come to our planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life better. Got an issue for him? Post it below or e-mail him.

Nathan Ravnitzky of Silver Spring poses a sweet and essential question to Binary Man. Nathan, who is five, has a longstanding dispute with his father, Michael: Is dessert a right or a privilege? You can guess which positions father and son have taken.

First, Binary Man's bias in this matter: Children, by virtue of their status as subordinates to their parents, have rights, but they are very much limited by the responsibilities of parents. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child lists more than 40 rights that children are to enjoy, and they include a right to leisure and a right to have their views respected. But parents have rights and responsibilities as well, and those include protecting, maintaining and disciplining the child.

Somewhere in there is an approach to dessert. Let's start with this: Dessert is a pleasure, and surely there is no inherent right to get goodies.

All of us, adult or child, have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--but not to happiness itself.

But is a right to dessert implied in, say, the right to life? In the endless debate among political philosophers (and, in less honest and open fashion, among politicians) over whether health care is a right or a privilege, one unfortunate and difficult truth is that governments that have declared health care to be a right have all too often used the provision of that care as an excuse to curb or deny other far more basic rights, such as the rights to express oneself, create one's own way in life, or live without fear of repression. The easier and simpler way to express whatever right we have to health care is to fall back on that right of life and to extrapolate from there to say that reasonable access to the resources necessary to stay alive are part of that basic right.

Similarly, we can probably agree that some degree of access to food is a right because we need food to stay alive. But nowhere in that right is there any guarantee of dessert. Dessert is by definition a luxury, an extra, a cherry on top.

In my house, the 18-year-old reluctantly concedes that dessert is likely not a right; the 13-year-old sticks to his guns and argues that it is a "limited right." By which he means that it is something a child has a right to expect access to, even if that access is restricted by parents' rules, however arbitrary they may be.

As a matter of philosophy, I don't see a right here. But as a question of parenting strategies, I'm with my son. Marking dessert as a privilege--something to be earned, something held out as a reward--lends it an exalted status, increasing its desirability. If the parent's goal is to make dessert less of a big deal, then the idea ought to be to turn dessert into something ordinary, unremarkable--not a privilege, but a routine aspect of daily life.

Some thinkers reason that dessert is a privilege simply because it comes at the end of a meal--the primary aspect of the meal is a right, according to this argument, and dessert is an extra by virtue of its place in the order of the meal. It's what can be withheld, or held out as a bonus.

It's all too easy for parents to turn dessert into a weapon of discipline. It would be wrong to wield dinner as a disciplinary tool--the kid has to eat. Dessert becomes the thing to take away because it is not essential. ("If you eat your peas, you can have dessert....")

But just because many parents end up giving dessert an overblown status by wielding it as a weapon does not mean that dessert should be an automatic part of any meal or any day.

The parent's job is to instill values and one key value is moderation. So parents have to come up with policies and attitudes that downplay the importance of dessert, making it a casual, occasional, relatively unimportant aspect of life, even as they celebrate its joys and recognize the passions it can produce. Nutritionists warn against holding dessert out as a reward or privilege--that only cements the idea that this is a part of the meal that deserves exalted status. But those same experts urge parents to make sweet, fattening desserts only an occasional event.

Binary Man says: Dessert is a (limited) right, but one that comes with responsibilities and one that parents are obliged to define in their own careful way. Sorry, Nathan, but while you may technically win the war, you are destined to lose many battles--at least as long as you see this as a conflict. But the challenge your father faces is even greater than whatever difficulty you may have in grasping this concept: He must guide you to see that there is no battle here, that you and he really share the same approach and same goals, the same joys and the same ability to limit yourself, even if you may not realize this for quite some years to come.

By Marc Fisher |  March 20, 2009; 7:09 AM ET
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Dessert is like a treat for a dog something to be earned and given randomly.
Treats and desserts should never be used as bribes or as training aids. Dogs and children should should do as requested to please their parents or human or face their wrath. Using a treat to teach a pup to sit only teaches the pup the power of a bribe. The pup is not sitting to pelase you. If you can't train your children or pups wihtout treats you really should not have either. You parenting and dog training skills suck!

Posted by: sheepherder | March 20, 2009 7:46 AM

Dessert is neither a right nor a privilege, but a bonus or a luxury. It is something that is not guaranteed such as a right. It is not a privilege in that it must be earned. You sometimes have it and you sometimes don't. It is more like a Wii, an iPod, a GameBoy or whatever else is a luxury. Good when you have it, but not necessary when you don't.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | March 20, 2009 4:41 PM

The real issue here is the notion of children's rights. We in the US have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), putting us in the same category as Somalia (the only other UN member-nation to hold out).

Children are humans and should have rights. Children should be guided, nurtured and protected by their parents, Only if they are incapable (or unwilling) does the state have a responsibility to intervene. The CRC provides for this in great detail; it does not, as feared by some, interfere and substitute for the family.

Posted by: marty638 | March 20, 2009 6:26 PM

Desert is a positive right. That means it is both a right and a privilege. Like health care, every human being has a right to "pursuit of happiness" and dessert and health care are both necessary to happiness. In theory we all deserve dessert.

However, to actually eat dessert, there must be farmers, transporters, mills, producers, distributors, all needed to make dessert available and somebody has to pay for it. It has to be privileged by our society.

Therefore either society as a whole, our parents, or we through our own efforts, have to earn the right to actually acquire and eat dessert. Dessert is the fruit of programs, companies, advertisers, or moms Kitchen. We earn the right to have dessert (or health care, food, clothing, shelter) by being human beings privileged to live in a society prosperous enough to feed us. And we owe sharing that right and privilege with others.

Have a piece of my pie!

Posted by: chris_holte | March 21, 2009 8:06 AM

I imagine that some of the fatties I work with consider dessert not just a right, but a very part of the social contract that ties society together.

Try to take dessert away from them and you'll draw back a stump.

Posted by: gth1 | March 22, 2009 11:26 PM

I'm wondering if I'm the only one who doesn't regularly eat dessert with a meal, and/or doesn't try withholding dessert from my kids if I'm having it myself.

I mean, this one seems pretty easy. If you're having dessert as part of the meal, you wouldn't withhold it from a guest at your table, and withholding it from the kids is a rude call.

If you think your kids need to cut back on desserts... odds are that wouldn't hurt you, either.

Posted by: LittleGreenArmyMan | March 23, 2009 12:16 PM

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