Ever have a moment when your mouth dropped open involuntarily as you process incoming data? Sometimes it’s that moment when you know you must take action, whether it’s outside your comfort zone or not.
My third-grader goes to a good school with teachers who really care. But good schools can have policies that are behind the times, especially when it comes to what we’re teaching kids about nutrition. If you’ve ever been uncomfortable with the candy/food policy in your child’s school but thought it was useless to speak out, read on.
Candy as a “Tool?”
When the bell rang on the second day of third grade, my daughter came out of school complaining of a stomachache.
“I just ate 49 Skittles in math,” she said, rubbing her stomach.
That’s when my mouth dropped.
As it turns out, third-graders play a math game early in the year in which teachers use Skittles as a “motivational tool.” Students are given the option to eat the candy or not – and of course, my eight-year-old with the major sweet tooth opted in.
I was already aware that in some classes, candy was handed out liberally throughout the year as a reward for good behavior. I remembered my daughter’s “treasure box” rewards and of course class parties hosted with plates of sweet treats. Sugary donuts are used for school fundraisers, and on birthdays every child is allowed to bring in cupcakes or another sweet treat.
But the sheer excessiveness of the math candy prompted me to pin down gnawing thoughts: Should schools be handing out sugar to kids when parents are trying to teach them healthy attitudes about nutrition and dental care at home? What kind of message does it send to kids when schools endorse sweets? And what about those of us who are concerned about dyes and other harmful ingredients found in many processed, refined sweets?
Sweets Undermine Kids’ Health
After emailing the teacher about my concerns it became clear that my daughter could be excluded from treats and given “fruit snacks” instead. But I declined, saying fruit snacks are merely candy in disguise and I didn’t want my child singled out. To me, the answer was simply less candy (or none) handed out in school.
When my daughter walked out of school with more candy – rewards for taking a required test – I met with the principal, along with a friend who shared my concerns. The principal was sympathetic and suggested we attend PTA meetings to address the issue.
Little did I know that for the next six months we would be attending sometimes contentious PTA meetings working to get a food-as-rewards policy implemented at the school. Contentious, you say? Yes – there are plenty of parents who believe that children should be rewarded with candy, despite these negatives:
- With 17 percent  of children aged 2 to 19 in the United States being overweight or obese, we need to think about what we’re teaching kids about their relationship with food. Using food to satisfy an emotional need is clearly a major American past time which leads to weight gain and health problems.Sure, food is a legitimate way to celebrate, gather together, and enjoy life. But what about the times when you’re having a bad day and stop for a double-decker ice cream? Or you’re all alone on the couch feeling lonely and decide a bag of chips is in order? Or the times when you’ve worked hard all day and “deserve” a candy bar (or two)? Is handing out candy for good behavior teaching kids they should reward themselves the same way?
- Using treats as rewards (and certainly in math) is poor modeling and can compromise classroom learning . My daughter’s school sends home a list of “healthy snacks” parents are supposed to abide by, so it’s hypocritical to also encourage unhealthy behavior and food associations along with a sugar high that can distract kids from learning.
- Obviously there are negative health effects that can result from consuming sweets. Sweets are associated with weight gain, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, gallstones, certain cancers, and more . (Check out the American Heart Association’s stand on sugar consumption.) Not only that but there are dyes and artificial ingredients in candy that are a far cry from clean eating.
- Rewarding children with food and sweets undermines what we’re trying to teach our kids at home. I expect my daughter to do her homework without a reward, but the school is rewarding her for doing something she was supposed to do!
Practicing Mindfulness in Schools
Six months later, after heated discussions with teachers, principals, and parents about the need (or lack of need) to control what the school hands out as rewards, we have a policy in place that:
- Requires teachers to inform parents of their intent to give out candy and give parents the chance to opt out;
- Encourages teachers not to use candy (or food) as a reward or as part of the curriculum and educates teachers about why; and
- Encourages parents bring in healthy food or nonfood items for holiday parties and birthdays.
This isn’t a policy that forbids the school from handing out candy or food; political changes involve compromise and can be slow. But the school now knows that it will be held accountable and mindful for what it gives kids.
Victories often come in small bursts. One teacher, who originally was part of a team using candy in math, now has the best ideas ways for rewarding students without food.
If you’re concerned about sweets (or food) given out in your child’s school, I encourage you to take action. Even if you provoke thought and discussion only, you’ve helped your school move in the right direction. And who knows – maybe your child’s school simply hasn’t thought through their policy yet, and you can be the impetus to make that happen.
- 5 Times You Should Never Want to Feed Your Kids
- How Much Sugar Should Kids Get Vs. What They Really Get
- Scientific Statement on Dietary Sugar Intake from American Heart Association
- No More Skittles: School Snacks May Get Healthy Update
- Constructive Classroom Rewards: Promoting Good Habits While Protecting Children’s Health
- Alternatives to Food as a Reward: Promoting a Healthy School Environment