Monday, January 14, 2008

Breaking Our American Food Obsession

Americans are obsessed with food. It’s one of our worst habits (aside from invading countries, exporting bad dramas, consuming the majority of world resources, and gloating as morons humiliate themselves on reality TV shows). As a culture, we adults have become so food-driven that we can’t conceive of having any sort of social function without involving food. It’s the ultimate crutch – “Well, if we can’t think of anything to say, we can always eat something.”

Want to get together with a friend for an hour? Let’s do lunch or grab a coffee.

Want to go see a movie? Let’s get a large popcorn, even though we just had dinner.

Kids’ play date? Let’s bring snacks.

Business meeting? Order doughnuts.

Going to a kids’ soccer game, in which we actually get them outside running around? Quick, make an assignment list so we know who’s bringing the Oreos and Kool-Aid. Our kids can’t possibly last one whole hour without refined sugar coursing through their blood stream.

Science Fair award ceremony? We’d better order refreshments, ‘cause nothing says “Good job dissecting that cow’s eyeball” like a dry, store-bought, prefabricated chocolate chip cookie (speaking of science experiments…).

It’s obscene. No wonder we are a nation known for our obesity. (Not to mention diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health problems.)

The thing is, kids aren’t born like that. We go to great pains to teach them this behavior.

Adults would never leave half a cookie uneaten on a plate. Kids do. All the time. They get full (or bored) and they stop eating. Whoa, just try and find an adult that can do that! To most kids, snacks are cool, but playing is better. Ask a kid: Would you rather have a pizza or a new Legos set (or Barbie, video game, or ticket to the latest movie)? I guarantee you the kid will pick the new toy or movie.

This food obsession is an adult one. We force it onto our kids. It starts early, and we reinforce it hard. So by the time they’ve become teenagers, they’re firmly locked into the unhealthy eating habits that characterize America.

The frustrating part is, even if we try to break the habit in our families, our teachers do it.

Although our school has a well-known policy against using food in the classroom as rewards, we still have incidents crop up every month or two where we have to re-educate teachers or parents or substitutes about it. That’s just going to be the way it is, as long as adults are involved in our school. “The class that does the best Nutrition presentation gets a pizza party! Right after lunch! Yea!” (Hunh? Yep, an adult would dream that one up. The kids would rather get a free hour on the playground. No brainer. But no one ever asks the kids. We just apply our tiny little restricted adult brains to the problem and come up with… wait, I know! Food!)

Now, a friend of mine in another school is attempting to introduce the idea that using food as a reward is a non-useful teaching tool. (She doesn't have food allergy issues. She does, however, worry about her kids developing unhealthy approaches to food.) At her community council meeting when she brought this up, she encountered the resistance all adults throw up when faced with change. The immediate reaction was “How on earth could we NOT use Tootsie Rolls as rewards for getting right answers?”

Right there, I see two problems. First, they’re using food as a reward – bad American habit! Second, they’re REWARDING kids for getting a right answer. What? We have to bribe our kids to answer every question, now? That’s setting up a true sense of entitlement – another one of American society’s big ills right now. Getting a good grade is the reward. A sense of accomplishment is a reward. Praise from the teacher (“Good answer, Freddy”) is a reward. Our kids are being turned into guinea pigs who have to ring a bell to get a pellet. But that’s a different issue for a different day.

Anyway, my friend has asked for help coming up with a list of ways to reward kids for school participation without using food.

Any ideas? If you have suggestions for easy, cheap, fast non-food rewards that teachers can use, let me know (post a comment). I’ll start compiling a list. Then I’ll sit down with my friend and help her come up with a proposal.

We’ll do it over lunch.


stacyjean87 said...

I completely agree with your blog about this issue! I think it is ridiculous that we have to be praised for everything we do right! I think rewards are overdone and I believe it's really handicapping our society. It's affecting the workplace where people don't want to even do their jobs unless they get a pat on the back and a sticker! (There's a country song that talks about some of this stuff!!) That being sad...stickers are great! When I was in elementary we would get a sticker on a little chart. The winner of that would ultimately win something...but it could even be something like a pencil, eraser! I mean lets help with fun school supplies instead of making our children fat! If they did that then they could still stay cheap with the stickers...but have them build up to something fun! Plus it's always fun to see your name up on the board with a million stickers! What about even stuff at the party store..Zurchers?! They have tons of little prizes! Good luck! I'll keep thinking!

bgarzella said...

Here is an idea for you. My son is in 4th grade. Each week students in the class are assigned jobs, i.e. desk cleanup, floor sweeper, trash emptier, chair stacker, sheriff, deputy etc. Then they earn play dollars based upon their job salary as well as for other things they do in the classroom. Once a month (usually a Friday) they get to go to the class store and spend their dollars on a prize. The prizes are small toys, pencils, pens, etc. that are donated by parents. The students even run the store because they have jobs like economist, cashier, etc. I personally think this is a really neat idea because is teaches the students a little bit about economics/real life. Also then they are working for play dollars/points during the month and don't have the food rewards like you are talking about.

My daughter's 1st grade teacher does something similar, but not as complicated. They also work for play dollars and when they have a certain amount (5, I think) they can get a small prize from the prize box (like a pencil, pen, or eraser with a cute design).

I personally buy these things at the Dollar store. Hope that is helpful.

UFAN said...

My daughters pre-school lets them choose a book from a big box when it is thier birthday (they order them from the scholastic book orders) and she is always excited. She loves to read!

KayG said...

Great blog Kelley...thanks! I love the ideas in the posting about earning points or dollars -- in my daughter's Kindergarten class it's 10 green sticks and they trade it in for Treasure Box....she looks SO forward to Treasure box day! Treasures include anything from pencils to stationary to cheap plastic purses. I know in 3rd grade at our school they use fake money to learn values and then trade in for prizes...similar to the other posting.

I know parents that use candy/treats for incentives for potty training...I personally don't like it nor have I used it. This is a great use of a sticker chart....earn so many stickers than something special like going to the park, a favorite show, a dollar store toy. This can be applied in the classroom too!

I've seen special privileges used as rewards...extra time on recess, more time in free choice play, line leader (or some other "fun job" that a child finds important or special).

At my kids school they wear uniforms so another reward is free dress...or crazy sock day...the middle school does crazy hair day which is a BIG hit with those kids. You can have a lot of fun with non-food rewards.

MelanieH said...

When I asked my son's teacher not to give him treats in class, she said because they are a "Gold Medal School," the only time kids get treats are if someone brings them for their birthday (for detailed info go to One of the criteria to be a Gold Medal School is that the school, "Develop a policy for all teachers and staff to follow emphasizing that food is not to be used as a reward or as a punishment." There are other criteria as well, and there are also great incentives to do it. You or your friend might want to mention this program to the school. (It's too bad there is such resistance to using something other than food as a reward. It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile, who said there can be problems if food is used as a reward or punishment.)