I’ve lost the handle on how often my kids eat treats. In fact, the word “treat,” which conjures up images of special occasion for cakes, ice cream sundaes, and hard-to-get confections, has been rendered meaningless in our family. In short, opportunities for treats happen too often.
Our kids get “special” treats at school for birthdays or for random reasons like the whole class finishing their math challenge books. They get suckers, jelly beans, soda, and cake at synagogue every Saturday. Each Sunday at least one of our four kids ends up at a birthday party that inevitably includes not just cake and ice cream, but a gift bag of candy to eat for the next few days.
The bigger issue, one that I can’t blame on anyone else, is the (almost) daily dessert that’s become part of our dinner routine. I let the kids have a popsicle or a small cookie or a piece of candy from their aforementioned birthday party treasure troves. Although dessert tends to be small, I can see how I’ve single-handily created their habit of wanting or even “needing” something sweet after a meal.
I’m also highly aware that my anxiety about my kids’ love of treats is really about how much I battled my own love of sugar, or in other words my weight, during my late teens and all of my 20s. I had no handle whatsoever on when to stop with the junk food once I got going. The idea of “just a little” simply didn’t exist for me.
I have memories as early as third grade of riding my bike to the nearest convenience store where I’d spend my allowance on Sour Patch Kids then eat them long past the point of tongue rawness. The eat-past-the-point-of-reason mentality stayed with me for too long. In high school I tempted the beast by working at a gourmet candy store where I gobbled up little gummy circles called “chewies.” They came in a variety of flavors such as creamsicle or fudge, and like a fool I felt no guilt because it was the early 90s and those chewies were—deep sigh—fat free.
You must get so sick of candy, customers would say. I wished it were true. I’d constantly promise myself that the next day would be different, that I wouldn’t eat the candy, or the whole pint of ice cream, or the entire sleeve of Thin Mints. You get the idea.
If I struggled so much to control my sugar cravings, then why haven’t I been stricter about how often my kids can have that kind of junk? My intentions were good. I didn’t want food to be an enemy in our household. I wanted the kids to know how to eat certain foods in moderation, and I didn’t want them to ever divide their lives into “good days” and “bad days” based on nothing other than whether or not they’d refrained from dessert or sugary snacks. In my desire not to become the food police or create discussions that would lead to an unhealthy focus on weight, I’ve lost touch with how to talk about food at all.
I’ve read plenty of articles about moms who say they’ll get their kids to eat healthy foods by connecting sugary choices to tooth decay, soft bones, and sluggishness. These moms vow to never discuss weight in any situation—not their own weight nor anyone else’s. This sounds ideal, except for the fact that it feels like an elaborate ruse to convince kids that we don’t care about their weight. Will a 12-year-old girl hear her mother’s warnings about a tummy-ache after such a big piece of cake as anything other than “You’ll get fat?” I have my doubts.
For my household, I think the ideal would go a step further than talks about healthy teeth and pretending I don’t care about their weight. I want to actually not care about their weight. My kids should know that I think they’re perfect as they are, and that what’s important about their lives has nothing to do with how they look.
The ironic twist is that in my desire to keep my kids from obsessing about food, I have allowed something of an “anything goes” food policy. The result: I have inadvertently created a valid reason to worry that my kids won’t have good eating habits as adults because they don’t have good habits now.
I’m not sure what to do. While I know that I’m not the only person who influences the decisions my kids will make about what they eat or anything else for that matter, I realize I could be doing a much better job in the department of treats.
This post originally appeared on Brain, Child Magazine.