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Candy From Strangers

By Kristen Drybread

CristoI figured my three-year old daughter would develop new habits and passions when we moved to Brazil, but I never imagined that her first love would become window-shopping. Back in New York City, Gabriella loved to spend Thursday afternoons at the library, Saturday mornings at the Museum of Natural History, Monday evenings at kiddie yoga. Almost as soon as we arrived in São Paulo, her favorite hangout became the local shopping mall.  Her preference for roaming the halls of a shopping complex filled with upscale retailers catering to twenty-somethings with a passion for hot pants was disturbing enough.  What made it almost intolerable to me was the fact that every time we came home from the mall Gabriella suffered a tummy ache, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Then, one evening I noticed her take a handful of gummy bears from a jar on a bookstore counter and pop them into her mouth. Suddenly, everything became clear. My daughter had been doing the unthinkable: taking candy from strangers.

At our local mall, music and booksellers dole out fruity taffies to intrepid children completing the journey to cash register at the back of the store. Jewelry shops generally keep a bowl of sugarcoated gumdrops somewhere near the front door.  And lingerie boutiques seem keen on issuing foil-wrapped chocolates to children holding tightly onto Mommy’s hand—hence, the steady stream of prepubescent boys begging their mothers to try on a new bra.  Yet, a parent need not set foot inside a single store in order for her child to collect enough candy to fill several piñatas. Sales associates frequently leave their stores to hand lollipops to youthful passersby.

To Brazilian retailers, distributing sweets to children is not a clever ploy intended to cajole thrifty parents into loosening their purse strings.  In fact, moms and dads are intentionally left out of the exchange. We’d been strolling the halls of Shopping Eldorado regularly for more than a month before I realized that Gabriella wasn’t really interested in looking at Pucca clocks or Hello Kitty socks. She was there to trick-or-treat.

I tried to put a stop to Gabriella’s candy grabbing by telling her the bookstore had likely set the bowl of gummy bears out for special event. “Honey, I don’t think that candy is there for just anyone to take,” I said. “You need to ask first.”

“She can eat,” and employee struggling to speak English cut in. “Children need candy. It helps them to grow sweet.”

No. It helps them develop cavities and to grow obese—I wanted to say. Instead, I told him, in Portuguese, “She’s already sweet.”

“Then she’s Brazilian,” he said. “Children from abroad rarely are.”

What did he mean?

I immediately remembered my daughter’s last trip to a New York City playground. A thin, tow-headed boy sat on a bench clutching an extra-large package of Oreos.  He kicked a girl who directly asked for a cookie and stuck his tongue out at a boy who implored for a bite with his large sad eyes. “They’re mine,” he screamed when his mother suggested he had more than enough to share.  A kid like that wouldn’t be content with a handful of gummy bears. But what about his peers? The only kid in Manhattan I knew who wouldn’t snatch as many candies from a jar as she could possibly hold was a former classmate of my daughter’s who had been born in France; she was the only child I’d ever seen divide a piece of candy with Gabriella rather than insist that my daughter find an adult who could give her a chocolate bar of her own.

True: I could take my daughter to any children’s play emporium in the United States and she wouldn’t, against my wishes, be plied with peanut brittle and bonbons. Most American parents ask a mother’s permission before handing her child a treat—even if it’s a quartered organic grape. Before moving to São Paulo, I mostly saw this as a sign of respectful parenting: surely our collective hesitance to share snacks indexed an appreciation for the dietary preferences of our fellow parents and the desire to protect unknown children from potential allergens.  But now I wonder if our reluctance to even offer treats to the children of others is responsible for the fact that children in the United States rarely seem to know how to share. I don’t remember seeing a four-year-old Manhattanite spontaneously doling out animal crackers—or even lending out her pink bouncy ball—without the express insistence of a guardian.

Brazilians, pint-sized ones included, don’t think twice about giving unknown children gifts—especially sweets. No matter how vigilant I am about policing Gabriella’s sugar intake, in São Paulo she will have, at minimum, two or three treats a day. If I pause to pay my bus fair, the old lady sitting behind us will have shoved a few M&Ms into Gabriella’s palm. If I reach for my cell phone, the man at the newsstand we’re walking past will have unwrapped a lollipop for her. If I look both ways before crossing the street, the kid in the stroller on our right will have given Gabriella a handful of Skittles.

Everyone here knows that candy, caramel corn, and cotton candy are to be shared. Sweets aren’t really for eating; they’re for creating community and teaching children the importance of generosity.  Why else would a package contain twenty cookies instead of two?

Now that Gabriella has learned from her Brazilian peers that the candy she’s given at the mall is not to be gobbled up at once or hoarded for a midnight snack, our shopping trips are free of bellyaches and sugar-induced nightmares.  What’s more, Gabriella actually ends up eating very little candy at all. It seems she’d rather enjoy one red gum drop and divide the remainder of the package with other tiny shoppers than stockpile candies while sitting in her stroller, alone.

Though I haven’t fully lost my impulse to say, “No thank you,” when a stranger asks if she can give Gabriella a cookie, I must admit that learning to share candy with strangers has made my daughter a whole lot sweeter.

 Kristen Drybread is a cultural anthropologist and freelance writer who lives in São Paulo with her two magical daughters.   

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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