The Jellybean Dilemma

jelly beansAt the age of five I decided that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up.  Having the ability to heal the sick appealed, but what clinched my decision was the jellybean jar. Our family GP had a huge bottle of brightly coloured jellybeans sitting on his desk, and I remember thinking that a job which allowed unfettered access to such delicious sugary treats was just about the best job one could ever have.  Official taster at a chocolate factory was my fallback career choice.

Fast-forward thirty odd years and I’ve achieved my childhood dream of becoming a doctor, but there is no lolly jar on my desk.  Instead of jellybeans, I offer my young patients stickers as bribes… oops, sorry… treats. For a responsible GP, this makes more sense.  While a single jellybean given at a doctor’s visit is not going to significantly increase not-so-little Johnny’s considerable girth, cause appreciable decay of Dani’s deciduous dentition or cause Tyler to throw yet another tantrum at bedtime, rewarding children with artificially coloured and flavoured confectionery sets a very bad precedent.  We should be teaching by example: promoting good health and positive parenting methods. I know this, and I practise the principle, but a small part of me wants to bring back the jellybean. After all, Mary Poppins was onto something when she sang, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

Being offered a jellybean at the end of each infrequent visit to the family doctor was a childhood highlight for me.  I actually looked forward to going to the doctor. The poking, prodding and vaccinating were all tolerable, thanks to the sugar fix at the end. I would carefully carry the painstakingly chosen jellybean out to the car in my hand, lick off the coloured coating and then ever-so-slowly suck the gelatinous core, eking out the enjoyment for as long as possible.  If I’d been offered a sticker as a substitute, I would have felt cheated.  Stickers don’t taste as good as jellybeans.

I was reminded of this recently when offered some constructive feedback from a discerning young patron.

“I think you’re a very nice doctor,” she pronounced.

“Why thank you.”


But?! I didn’t like where this was heading but I was masochistically curious.

“… I liked my old doctor better.  He had cold hands and he smelt funny and Mummy said he didn’t know what he was talking about…”

OK, now I really didn’t like where this was heading.

“… but he always gave me a frog.”

“A frog! A real frog?”

“No, Silly Billy. A lolly frog. And always a red one. They’re much better than the green ones.”

“Oh. I see. Do you like frogs better than stickers?”

“Der! Stickers are boring. Frogs are yummy.  I reckon that if you gave out frogs you’d be the best doctor ever!”

“Thanks for the feedback. I’ll take it under advisement.”

My inner child can’t help but agree with her.  A lolly-giving doctor would have definitely trumped a sticker-giving one when I was her age. Some kids love stickers and would choose the visual pleasure over the gustatory if given the choice, but many are like I was: orally fixated when it comes to treats.  I’m not about to change my paediatric protocols and I stand by my health promotion convictions, but the idea of using a spoonful of sugar or two to boost my popularity is rather tempting – almost as tempting as was the jar of brightly coloured jellybeans on my childhood GP’s desk.

(Identifying details have been changed to protect patient privacy)

First published in Portraits of General Practice, Good Practice magazine, April 2014, page 15

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