Bisi’s been out of school for almost a month, but I’m still recovering from all the end-of-year parties—the school potlucks, the classroom goodbyes, the treats after performances—that are especially challenging when you’re trying to help someone eat in a consistent, healthy, and low-carb way. It’s another one of those times of year (like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, am I forgetting any?), that people seem to use as occasions to pile on the treats. One particular conversation has stuck with me, since I think it points to how ingrained the idea of food-as-reward is in our society, even in a school community that purports to pay close attention to serving healthy food (soda, juice, and ice cream have been banned from the school cafeteria but crispy kale and sweet potato fries are on the menu).
Bisi’s great teacher at her (also great) after school program was planning a party for about ten of the kids as an end-of-school reward. I called up the teacher, I’ll call him Sam, to talk through the menu for the party, and how and when Bisi would give herself insulin. Bisi had told me that they were having pizza and soda, and asked me to pack her a diet soda she could have instead.
When I talked with Sam, he told me the group would be doing a special outdoor game; then they’d come inside a watch a movie. “We’re serving pizza, soda, chips, and popcorn during the movie, and then I decided today to add on ice cream.”
Me: “Umm, okay, maybe I’m more sensitive to this because I have to give Bisi medicine for everything she eats with carbs, but that seems like a lot of junk for her, and for all the other kids. Do they really need all those options?”
Sam: “Do you want me to ask her not to have some of that? Usually she’s pretty good.”
Me: “No, that’s not going to work. She’s really excited about the party, she knows what’s being served, and she’s going to insist on having what the other kids have. What I’m hoping is that you’ll consider not serving the ice cream, since they’re already having a lot of other treats.”
Sam: “Yeah, I see where you’re coming from, and I agree. We don’t need to be giving the kids all that junk. I added on the ice cream because I happened to see it in the freezer, but they don’t know about it, and they don’t need it, so I think we can cut that part out. I feel like the kids have come to expect all these treats, so there’s pressure to give it to them, and I don’t necessarily agree with it.”
Me: “I think kids come to expect what they’re given. In my experience, if a classroom teacher sets up the expectation that they’re not going to give treats, and plans something else special instead, the kids are fine with it. I feel like kids are happy if they’re given some sort of creative option that they don’t usually get—it doesn’t have to be food.”
So no ice cream was served at the party, but it felt like an empty victory, especially because Bisi’s blood sugar that night, after the pizza, popcorn, and chips, was horrible. What I wanted to say, but didn’t quite have the guts, was that adults need to be the ones to set expectations, that kids will always push for more junk, and it’s up to adults to tell them no, and to teach them that rewards don’t always need to be related to food. I wanted to tell him that not only was I hoping he would skip the ice cream, but I didn’t like the idea of most of the other food either. Really, wouldn’t a little popcorn with the movie have been enough? And I wanted to tell him that even though the other kids didn’t need a big dose of injected insulin with their pizza, treats like these, served to them over and over again until they become an expectation, weren’t doing them any favors, either.