Fighting a Rising Tide of Candy: What’s a Mean Mom to Do?

Sweet treat as a school reward?

I got a letter from a reader recently that I want to share:


Hi Denise,

I love your blog.  My only child, my son, is 5, and you certainly present an interesting take on many issues that I’ve faced as a mom.

I was wondering whether you had an opinion on the candy culture in elementary schools these days.  It seems like every other day my son is coming home with a lollipop that he got from the treat bag for being good.  Now, I’m delighted that he’s being good, but enough with the sugar already!  I certainly don’t remember being rewarded with candy by my elementary school teachers.  I just think it sends the wrong message on so many levels, when we’re trying to educate young people.

So I’m the “mean mommy” who has to ration the candy at home, and who writes to the teacher to ask whether she could please reconsider her rewards.  Is this an issue you face?

Thanks, and keep up the good writing,


Ah, Patricia. Do I have an opinion on the candy culture in elementary schools? Yeah. Little bit of one. More on that in a moment.


First I want to address Patricia’s dismay over the treat-as-reward compulsion. I have two main problems with that. One is the very notion of connecting a tangible reward with either good behavior or good grades. Not a fan. Turns out, neither are experts you might consult on this issue. A lollipop (or a dollar bill or a collection of raffle tickets that lead to this or that prize) as a reward is a misguided means of motivation. It inevitably and dangerously ties a child’s motivation to do well with the promise of a treat. In psychological parlance, that’s external motivation: the child wants to ace the test or demonstrate good behavior not because it feels good inside, but because he wants the prize.


But the second reason is for the sheer fact that kids have access to way too many treats —in school and eslewhere. Not only is the lollipop Patricia’s son’s teacher gives him a poor way to motivate him to continue his good behavior or whatever, it’s probably just piled on to other stuff he’s handed all week long — at a Cub Scout meeting, say, or after his pee-wee soccer game.


Let me be clear that I’m not against treats, cupcakes, candy or anything like that. But without an effort at moderation, we’re all left either sliding down a slippery slope of cake icing, or banning treats outright.


Which is what our school principal tried, last year — she called down a moratorium on any food in the school outside the cafeteria or the scheduled (hopefully healthy) snacks parents packed for their kids. She seemed almost evangelistic about it, but I’m thinking she was as frustrated as I often am: why can’t we find a middle ground between the occasional, well-deserved and happily enjoyed birthday cupcake on the one hand, and total sugar-salt-and-fat-fueled gluttony on the other? Why can some class moms keep the party more focused on a holiday themed activity, with the treat as a side-show; while others can’t resist the candy aisle?


Before the ban, when my older son was in first grade, a Thanksgiving celebration involved making butter by shaking containers of cream and salt. But was that, and the corn muffins on which to spread the homemade, just-like-the-Pilgrims-did-it butter enough? Hell to the no: the class parents also provided a party spread that included — and I am not making this up — everything from cheese doodles and potato chips to Twizzlers and M&Ms. Row by row, the class lined up to fill a paper plate with their chosen goodies. Guess what?! Nearly all of them completely over-indulged in this uniquely American mixture of salty, crunchy, sweet, fatty fare. One of the class moms actually said to me, “Look at all the stuff they’re piling on their plates!”, as though it was some sort of wild surprise that when 6- and 7-year-old kids are presented with a buffet of snack and treat options, they’ll take a little too much of just about everything. Did she somehow think that they’d be discerning, or say things like, “Hmmm, Twizzlers and cheese doodles might leave my tummy a bit upset”, or “better just take one or two things; we’re headed to lunch in 10 minutes anyway!”


Of course they wouldn’t. Duh. You give kids an unlimited buffet of crap, it’s crap they’ll reach for.


But when my younger boy hit first grade, Year One (and, as it turned out, Year Only) of the ban, birthdays involved parents coming in to read — no cupcakes, no goody bags, no treats. And holidays involved a craft or other activities.


They felt the difference, and while having their parents in the room reading a book or helping with a craft was nice, they noticed the lack of celebratory goodies, and they didn’t like it.


Are you surprised to find that neither did I?


I don’t think kids should be handed donuts, cookies, candy, and chips every time they turn around, which is standard operating procedure these days. No one can go to a club meeting, a sport, or a playdate without treats. Even in our religious ed classes, catechists had to be told by the director that they should try their best to refrain from offering snacks during classes. The net effect, though, is that what I’d call legitimate treat times — birthdays, holidays — become less special. I say, get rid of the lollipops or M&Ms or Twizzlers as “prizes” for good spelling or good behavior; get rid of tables groaning with an overabundance of crap at parties; disassociate Girl Scouts and religious ed classes and soccer games from “chance to have a donut.”


Do that, and you can safely leave in place a cupcake on a birthday, or chocolates on Valentine’s Day, or freshly-buttered corn muffins on Thanksgiving.


Now that our principal has bowed to pressure and re-instated food “privileges” in classrooms, we’ll see how things go. Next up is Halloween. The school holds an adorable parade of the costumed classes, and often the teachers and class parents have parties afterward back in the classroom. Can we all reign it in? I’ll let you know in a few weeks…


And Patricia: Continue to fight the good fight!