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a loaded tootsie: on kids and food bribes

Vivi marched in the door of her school yesterday proudly holding in two hands a sheet of homework–her very first, a page full of scribbled As–and gave it to her teacher, announcing “I get a prize now!” The prize would come at the end of class. I spent the three hours away from her occasionally pondering what the treat could be, and I found myself saying “Please let it not be candy.” Upon picking her up I learned the prize was, of course, a tootsie pop. Greaaaat.
Not to mention Charlie’s disappointment at being left out (although I had at least brought her some ginger cookies for this possibility), I found myself also conflicted. On the one hand, I am glad her teachers are giving her early positive reinforcement for doing homework and remembering to bring it back, but on the other I am really hoping we won’t continue through the remainder of the weekly alphabet homework with these kinds of sugary treats. What ever happened to high fives and ribbons? Or the prize box from my own childhood with cheap rubber finger puppets and springy pencil eraser toppers?Grandmothers everywhere are rolling their eyes at me right now. I swear I’m not trying to be a killjoy. I have a child psychology and public health background, so I’m interested in nutrition, food science, and how they relate to kids’ brains. I have learned in my research that kids who positively associate food with rewards have more risk later with weight problems, and I also know sugar sets them up for future food abuse troubles.

I admit to smiling on the way home as we discussed what exactly this magical lollipop in her hand was all about.

What’s my lollipop called, Mommy?
A tootsie pop.
Ha! Tootsie. Does it say toot, toot?
No, but it does have a chocolate candy inside called a tootsie roll.
IT DOES?! Wow! 

(five minutes later, cue inevitable first reaction to a tootsie pop)
Mommy, it’s taking me too many licks to get to the candy in the middle, and I can’t figure out how to bite it. 

I’m not always a candy troll, and I don’t hate tootsie pops, I love them! Who doesn’t? Childhood memory recalls how many licks it takes to get to the center…thhhhreee. Nor do I fight occasions like Valentine’s Day and Halloween when the kids get more treats. These holidays are great departures from the standard answer of “No, we don’t have any candy.” And as for grandmas, I am happy to let them give the kids extra treats for the same reason. Grandmas are exempt from the rules of parenting. But school and home are different from the rest, and I wish we could as a culture extricate ourselves from our traditions of offering food for rewards now that the results are in. We know the damage we are doing to our children’s long-term health, so why do we do it?

My basic philosophy of serving food at home is simple (I covered the topic of food rules for kids more in depth here). The kids must try one or two bites of everything before being excused from the table, and we save fruit for the end of the meal. To them, fruit is the sweet treat! I don’t bribe them to finish their food or punish them by not serving fruit. If they eat only a single pea and half a piece of toast, I sigh, grit my teeth, and hope they will eat more at the next meal.

Dessert is usually ice cream or cookies and is a “sometimes food;” if they’re asking for it, and we have it, then I generally give it to them {note: I’m not suggesting you can’t refuse treats when your kids misbehave, but I wouldn’t tie the two together. If they’re being bratty, I simply say “We eat dessert sometimes, and tonight isn’t one of those times.” The kids know I won’t budge so don’t bother me about it}. I don’t buy many sweets so am able to give an honest “sorry, haven’t got any” answer the majority of the time.

Come to think of it, I usually serve dessert when I need to buy myself time, like if I’m in the middle of cleaning the kitchen or want to finish a conversation with a friend. I’ll also admit to bribing kids with a food-like-substance, if that’s what you call a vitamin, when I want them to use the potty before we leave the house. My kids love vitamins like they’re a controlled substance and would no doubt OD on them in a second were I not present to provide parental oversight.

While it’s not easy to allow them to refuse a meal I made, I feel it’s better than an alternative in which we become tangled in a food dance of power struggles and elaborate rules and rituals. The simpler the rule, the more likely my kids will get it and not question it. Vivi is one of the world’s best negotiators, so I’m sure her behavior was a gradual shift away from her innate need to badger me. I fight the good fights, and to me nutrition is one of the most important.

Let’s also establish that I’m not perfect by any means. I am lucky not to live within reasonable driving distance of a Chick-fil-A. Even so, I still fall off the food-as-reward wagon occasionally, like when my first instinct was to offer Vivi candy for using the potty. I’ve hopped back on the wagon, and we used a reward-free method to potty train Charlotte and are using painting Vivi’s toe nails as her reward for reaching her current no-thumb-sucking goal. When my kids get a shot at the doctor’s, they do get a sticker and lots of hugs, but they do not get a food bribe.

In the end, it probably won’t hurt that the girls got occasional food treats. Even with the lollipops, I still love Genevieve’s teachers, especially when they send home science experiments like this one:

Look like candy? They’re not!

Have you seen those balls before? They are made of the same material as the gel in a diaper. They start small, and you leave them in water to let them absorb it. Then they are slippery and bouncy. We had fun chasing them all over the kitchen. The best part is that they weren’t sticky like a normal bouncy ball so didn’t pick up the crumbs or hair on the floor. I didn’t worry about them being potentially toxic because Charlie is over the eating everything in sight stage, but I would caution against playing with this polymer if you have a toddler who isn’t past that age.

How does your school handle rewards for hard work and following directions? If it hasn’t been what you wanted, have you tried to change the system? A friend and I were thinking of buying a bunch of dollar store junk and making our own prize box to donate to the classroom.

Update (9-27-12): Vivi turned in her second round of homework today and received a little plastic toy instead of candy. Score! It would be even better if we could avoid the plastic junk and sugary junk, but between the two I vote plastic. Sorry, environment. After I wrote this article, I read a post by another parent and real food evangelist about how she doesn’t abide processed candy at all, even at Halloween. There’s some food for thought.

Editor’s note: This post is a part of Monday ManiaThe Homestead Barn Hop, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Real Food Wednesday, Mom’s Library, Your Green Resource, Freaky Friday, and Fight Back Friday