I pretty sure that when I call or email my child’s school, my child’s school staff cringes. Oh, no, it’s her. What does she want now? For a while, I think they even “forgot” to put the suggestion box back out. I had stuffed it full. It seems that I’ve become difficult, a real pain, That Mom.
Their first battle with me was the “treasure box.” Children earning three stars a day, got to choose a reward from the treasure chest, a box filled with junk candy. The kind of stuff my child never had before. We do an occasional treat, but it is always something made from actual food. It is not daily, and it is never used as a bribe.
I requested the practice to stop, or at least offer only healthy choices. To get me to shut up, the school turned over treasure supply to parents. When the parents didn’t fill the box, the box finally went away. But the candy reward still shows up from time to time — supplied directly by the teachers. And I still complain to the staff. A lot. I am sure they roll their eyes and think, “Doesn’t That Mom have something better to do?”
I don’t. And I am not overreacting.
Studies have shown that this is one of the worst lessons you can teach a child for his eating habits. Not only does it reinforce the preference for sugary foods, but by placing the junk food in the desirable position as a reward — positive reinforcement — it further increases the child’s preference for candy over healthier foods like dinner.
For parents who take more responsibility for their kids’ diets, the approach adds a third blow; if we deny our child access to the same reward as the other kids get, it makes candy an even more highly desirable substance. Parents who care about healthy eating habits are thus held hostage by the choice the school made — all to set up a bribe system as a way out of real lessons on discipline.
The bribe is really tough for preschoolers to grasp. The association between stars for behavior and a treasure hours later is just not there yet. Worse, the “treasure” was earned at the end of the day, and it was up to the parent to be the bad guy and deny the reward if the child did not get any stars. Nothing like a long day at work then being met with a screaming tantrum over a tootsie pop that you did not want your kid to have in the first place.
To make the whole matter worse, let’s review a page from the book on Reinforcement Theory. Using such a reward system, children learn to perform the behaviors we want only when there is a reward. No reward, no good behavior. The child never learns to value positive behavior as the true reward. Over time, a child even grows bored with the reward. It loses its value, so the reward has to be increased. The value lessons that build a responsible adult are absent. This is reason alone to ditch the bribe system.
So, I fight the little battles. I’ve become That Mom. And I’m OK with that.
[This post was written by Beth Bader.]