When Sam demanded M&Ms for breakfast a few months ago, food sociologist Dr. Dina Rose had a radical suggestion: “Why not give him M&Ms for breakfast?”
In part 2 of my Dessert Dilemma series, Dr. Rose (who coached me through Sam’s dinner strike and writes a terrific blog, It’s Not About Nutrition) explains how giving kids the choice of when they have their treat can be a powerful tool. Here’s what she says:
In a world where treats are everywhere, kids only have to learn one thing: How to fit them into their day so they don’t dominate their diet. When you’re teaching your kids how to manage treats, you should manage how much and how often.
A small treat once a day is about right.
There’s nothing new in what I’m suggesting, because most parents do this. Yet most parents don’t consciously manage treats because they don’t decide a basic policy of size and quantity. Rather, most parents make it up as they go. But winging decisions about treats also doesn’t work because kids are forever tempted by the treats they see (who can blame them?).
When parents don’t have a strategy they can articulate, decisions about treats seem arbitrary. It’s this arbitrary quality that makes kids beg and whine for more goodies.
The way to get out of this situation is to articulate the frequency rule –one treat per day –and then let kids choose when they have the treat.
When I suggest this to parents, they worry about two things:
Worry #1: That their kids will choose their treat first thing in the morning or right before dinner.
If parents are in charge of the size of the treat, this isn’t a problem. And if eating the treat before dinner will ruin a kid’s appetite, then providing a treat after dinner is encouraging them to overeat. There should be enough room in the tummy for all the foods at a meal regardless of the order in which they are eaten.
And a child who chooses a treat first thing in the morning will eventually decide not to have the treat then because the thrill of it will subside. Or she’ll realize that “using up” the treat first thing in the morning means she’ll have to pass up something better (but usually still unknown) later in the day.
Worry #2: That their young children are incapable of making this kind of a choice.
It’s true that young children are developmentally incapable of delaying their gratification until they are about 4. That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t start teaching them this kind of self-control now. It also doesn’t mean it can’t be an effective technique. It is.
The hard thing about giving children control over when they eat their treats is that it takes a powerful (but dangerous) weapon out of the parenting arsenal: negotiating behavior, food consumption, and anything else in exchange for treats. If your children choose when they eat their ice cream, you can no longer tell them they can have their ice cream if they eat their broccoli.
But removing this strategy from the tool bag is actually a good thing because it’s coercive, increases the risk that kids will overeat–and teaches them that vegetables are yuck but treats are yum.
To read more of Dr. Rose’s take on dessert, read her posts Dishing Up Dessert and Wheelin’ and Dealin’: 10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trade Peas for Pie.Wh