This weekend was a big one. My 4.5-year-old had a goal all summer. It all started one day when I told her about a time when her dad and I would bike to coffee shops all over Charlottesville, VA while pursuing our doctoral degrees - so that we could study together. She said that her goal was to bike to the local coffee shop in our neighborhood and then read a book there. Every time we would drive by the coffee shop she would say with conviction, “One day I’m going to bike there mommy.” She practiced all summer. No training wheels. Just a kid in a mismatched outfit (that she chose) and a helmet. It was precious.
She seemed over tired last week and was having a bit of a tough time so I said, “Let’s you and Mum go on a date this weekend - just the two of us.” She said that she would love that and, as her eyes widened, she said “Let’s bike to the coffee shop, Mummy. I’m ready.”
The week went on as planned. There were three birthdays at pre-school last week (she attends three mornings a week). Three days her banana came home. Why? Well, other parents brought in cupcakes or oreos, etc. to celebrate birthdays. Then, Saturday night we celebrated her dad and uncle’s birthday and had cupcakes (they were healthy, but the frosting wasn’t...lol). I’m all for allowing my kids to have treats to celebrate special occasions and in moderation. But, what others don’t know is that this past week, because isn’t there always something to celebrate when one is four-years-old, it appeared my little one had such treats (high calorie, low nutritional quality) four out of five days in a row.
On Sunday we went off on our date (Daddy and Little Sis joined us as they just couldn’t miss out on the fun). We took lots of energy breaks (what my 4.5 year-old calls water breaks in the shade) and walked the bikes up a few hills.
I didn’t hear her say “I can’t” and I didn’t hear her say “It’s too hard”. Yup. I think Dr. Angela Duckworth would be proud and conclude my big kid was demonstrating grit. I continued to tell her that she was tough and that I was really proud of her effort and her ability to really go for her goal. I was using words to let her know what she was doing was pretty cool.
Once we arrived at our destination, we parked our bikes and walked inside. She was so proud and told the barista that she just “made her goal”. The barista could not have been nicer - and offered her a cake pop as a reward. I shivered. Anyone else feel like they are the “crazy Mom” when they point out the insanity of the many unhealthy normalized behaviors in our culture? We punish with exercise. We reward with food. Then we grow up looking for quick fixes on how to feel good.
On the way into the coffee shop, I encouraged her to pick out a healthy snack because that would give her the best energy to continue to bike to Grandma’s house after. The snack was not meant to be a reward, it was simply a necessity - she would need more energy to continue on her travels. So, my daughter informed me that she was prepared to order a fruit cup. She looked up at me with her big eyes asking for my approval. The line was long, it was hot, people were waiting....
Do I just say “okay” or do I follow through with my lesson?
I asked my daughter “I would love for you to be a really strong kid and make the healthiest choice for your body since you had lots of treats this week to celebrate a lot of birthdays.”
She responded, “Thanks! But, Mom wants me to be strong and have energy. I’ll have a fruit cup....please.”
I looked down the line. A few folks were smiling. A few were rolling their eyes like I was the crazy health mom who deprives my kid. You see, people are only trying to be nice. They are doing what so many did to them - reward with food that is not nutritious. Yet, we know more than adults knew about nutrition when we were kids. Nutrition is an evolving area. I’m not here to criticize those who do it, I’m just here begging folks to simply reward with words - if you insist on rewarding kids. I think far too often we “reward” kids rather than simply acknowledging that it’s great they did the right thing, because a) it will make them feel good to do good, and b) the world needs more good.
You see, adults, you don’t know what my kid ate prior to seeing her on the day you are offering her something that is not nutritious. You don’t know what she ate all week.
Everywhere I look there is something to celebrate. I don’t bring food to her pre-school on her birthday. We celebrate with cupcakes at home for sure, but why do kids need to have several birthday celebrations? We criticize them when they grow up to be entitled yet we think it’s perfectly normal to celebrate one event in several areas (home, pre-school, etc.). Halloween last year occurred at gymnastics, pre-school, and swimming - heck, they were bored after going to three houses on the actual night of Halloween. Can we just keep some of these things out of school? Out of youth sport/activities?
I don’t want my kid to set goals (bike to the coffee shop) because she gets a food reward (cake pop). I want her to set goals because it will make her feel good about herself and it will help her to realize that she can attain most goals she focuses on (as long as she is realistic in how she sets them).
I’m not trying to make a huge deal that the kind barista offered her a cake pop. What I don’t understand is why we don’t think to offer the banana sitting on the counter instead? Why not offer her a cup of ice water? I was feeling like this fun mum until then. At this point, I felt like a big ol’ party pooper suggesting she decline the cake pop (this, by the way, is also okay - it’s not my job to be the fun mom, it’s my job to parent and I get that). I don’t want her to feel sad about not having a cake pop - I simply want her educated about moderation. I don’t want her to feel restricted in what she’s allowed to eat - I want her to feel educated and informed and therefore motivated and inspired to treat her body with the love and respect it deserves. Heck, it just allowed a four-year-old to pedal toward her goal. It’s not about looking a certain way, it’s about feeling great and having a much lower chance of developing many chronic illnesses if she grows up demonstrating regular healthy behaviors.
This is why I advocate for health promoting schools - schools that take a comprehensive approach to students’ health. They have quality physical education most days a week, and it is taught by certified physical education professionals. They also have policy in place that includes no rewards with food, adequate recess time, and classroom teachers teaching their content with physical activity involved (see here for some ideas on how to do this).
Parents: Please join me! Please write your school administrator and your child’s teacher today. Ask them to consider adopting a healthy school approach so that we can empower our youth to view physical activity as the reward, and food as fuel for their body to run efficiently. If you insist on taking things into school to celebrate your child’s birthday, please consider stickers or (my personal fav) volunteer to lead some physical activities on that day.
Physical education teachers: Please share information about why we shouldn’t reward children and youth with food on your websites and teach your students about the importance of making healthy choices. As teachers, we have a lot of influence and it’s important that we always use this influence responsibly. What a better way than reminding them to enjoy treats periodically as part of a celebration, but ask them to really understand what should be celebrated and how much is in access to healthy?
School administrators: Work with classroom teachers, parents, and community members to come up with creative ways to reward students. More physical activity in the form of extra recess, an extra physical education class, etc. is a good place to start! Rather than working to toward a pizza party, how about working toward a class bike ride on a local trail?
Youth coaches: Your athletes probably don’t need Gatorade! Encourage your families to check out TrueSport’s nutrition information. While you are on TrueSport’s website, check out all their other amazing information, too! Encourage health giving snacks and post participation foods.
With a health promoting school mindset, a population-level cultural shift will occur. Without it, people will continue to look at me like I’m an overbearing health crazed mother.
How about you?
Do you think we reward kids too much and then criticize them for feeling entitled?
Do you teach moderation?
What type of health promoting rewards to you offer in your classes? Schools? Families?