Thursday, 19 May 2011

Black marks and 'treats'

I took my 3 year old on a play date yesterday with 2 little mates of his from nursery. The little boy whose house we went to - let's call him Jimmy - has a large gold star/black mark chart taped to the kitchen wall. Every time he does something 'good' he gets a gold star and a treat and every time he does something 'naughty' he gets a black mark and the treat is withdrawn. When I asked what the treats were he answered with one word and a glint in his eye: sweets.

The boys were playing wildly, running around, wrestling and shouting and generally doing what boys do. I was on a work call and Jimmy's nanny was a whirlwind of activity: she was fixing the boys' lunch, emptying the dishwasher, hanging out the laundry and trying to tidy up all at the same time and she was getting increasingly frustrated with Jimmy who kept on throwing toys all over the place. She told him once, twice, three times to stop and then shouted: "Right! That's it. You're getting a black mark and no treats after lunch!" She got a big marker pen, drew a large black dot on the chart and wrote "naughty" next to it. Jimmy seemed unfazed and carried right on flinging his cars against the wall. I finished my call and got the little hooligans involved in a game of football outside until lunch was ready and we all sat down. 

After lunch, the nanny took a large tin out of a cupboard and doled out sweets to my son and the other boy. She turned to Jimmy and said: "You're not getting any because you've been naughty." Jimmy sat there and looked mortified as he watched the other two wolfing down the sweets. I sat there and felt intensely uncomfortable.

What has all of this got to do with Beyond Chocolate? Well it struck me yesterday that Jimmy will grow up with certain associations: he will associate obedience and rewards with sweets...and punishment with deprivation. Sweets will become (or most probably already have become) something special and a bit forbidden. Something Jimmy will long for...not because they taste good and he loves them particularly but because he has been taught from a young age that when he has them he is 'good', loved, approved of. Can you start to see how Jimmy's star chart fits in with Beyond Chocolate?

I wonder how many millions of children are learning the same lesson as Jimmy. Before the indignant comments start pouring in I want to say that I am not dissing Jimmy's parenting choices here. They do what they believe is best and everyone is entitled to that. Star charts and black marks may very well help to make Jimmy a great person. This is not about whether this parenting method is OK or not, it's about what the consequences are in terms of our relationship with food and how it impacts the choices that these children will make when faced with a packet of sweets later on in life. It's about how these children  choose to comfort themsevles, reward themselves and make themselves feel better as adults. 

Were you ever given sweets as a reward in childhood? Were you ever punished by being deprived of them? How do you think it has shaped the way you view sweets today?


  1. We weren't allowed sweets at all because my parents were trying to save our teeth - so we did everything we could to get hold of sweets! Puddings were something that were with-held if we didn't finish our 'firsts' and/or if we were badly behaved. I grew up craving sweets, chocolate, cakes, biscuits, puddings ... and when I left home, I ate myself into obesity in a couple of years. It wasn't my parents' fault, but I can see the link now between my over-eating their control over food - once I had control over my own food, I didn't know how to exercise that control and ended up massively over-eating for a long time... Thank goodness for Beyond Chocolate!

  2. I was NEVER given any sweets when I was little (apart from on my birthday), whether I was good or naughty. And that in itself is ALSO a problem - sweets, biscuits, cakes were out of bound, I very rarely saw biscuits in my parents' house and cakes were something we had about 4 times a year, Christmas included... I guess it was 'constant deprivation', even though it wasn't stated in those terms. A very old friend once told me that whenever I came to her house (where sweets and biscuits were allowed, in moderation), I would rush to them like a ravenous wolf and ... I would 'wolf' them down! I wasn't aware of it at all but f course, this shows that yes, punctual or constant food deprivation, whether you've been good or naughty, has very negative long-term consequences... To this day, I can't shake the alluring quality of sweet things, I can't stop viewing them as 'special'. I'm working on making them as normal as bread or chicken breast, but find it nearly impossible.

    I never reward my 2 and a half year old daughter with anything but warm, kind words and lots of cuddles and thank-yous. She's only been a bit naughty twice in her young life and I just put her in a corner until she calmed down, then talked to her calmly and reassured her it didn't mean I didn't love her, just that 'we don't do that sort of thing'. Obviously, considering my eating problems, I will NEVER use food as a reward and I will NEVER use food deprivation as a punishment with my daughter.

  3. I never use food deprivation as a punishment or use food as a reward but I do use it in celebration - end of term, let's go for an ice cream. My mother taught me to read when I was only three and once I'd done my reading practice I got malteasers. There were lots of things like that. She also used to make me her accomplice when she wanted to eat something "forbidden" because it made her feel better. But the main thing I learned from my mother is that diets don't work. She dieted on and off all her life and each diet made her fatter. Then she stopped and just started eating what she genuinely wanted. Without knowing it she was really following Beyond Chocolate principles, she lost a stone a year for 3 years. She has a BMI of 22 and looks fabulous and it's been more than five years now. Rather encouragingly, she thinks being the other side of the menopause is helpful as she says apetite is easier to control when you aren't wrestling so many hormones.

  4. My mother tried hard to stop my grandmother from giving us sweets as a reward/if we hurt ourselves, but she (my mother) still went on (and still does) about "bad" foods, being "bad" with her eating etc.

  5. Your first commenter and I have a lot in common - as soon as I was away from parental control, I began to put on weight, and then began the diets.... It's only recently that I've stopped my Dad commenting on whether I've gained or lost weight when he sees me. It was born of concern - I have an older cousin who has major health issues caused by being extremely overweight (I couldn;t find a non-judgmental way to express that...), but it has probably caused many more problems than it prevented. I still find the need to buy and stash sweets when I visit my parents, even now.

    One other use of sweets I have struggled to avoid with my two, is the association between them and "feeling better". Every bump, scratch, or tiny upset at my mother-in-law's would result in the sweet tin coming out, again until I put my foot down. That was a long time before I discovered BC, but I'm pleased I did it. My kids have always been allowed some sweets, chocolates etc, I know I won't get it absolutely right, but I hope that their relationship with food is much healthier than mine.

    Thanks, Audrey, for a really interesting post.

  6. When I was little my parents were super busy running a pub and they used to give me coke and crisps when really I wanted a bit of attention. Not their fault, they had to earn a living, but I would have liked a hug more than the food.
    I recognise this now (for a long time I didn't) and when I feel I want attention I ask for it, or I give myself a non food treat.

  7. Sweets were treats for me as a child, my brother & I had to cut Mars Bars in half to share. As soon as we started work and had our own money we would spend it on the "goodies" that were limited when we were kids.
    My son has a star chart, he is 5yrs. I give him a star if he's tidied his toys away, or helped to set the table or got a "Well Done "sticker at schooletc When the star chart is full (it can take a couple of months) he gets £10 to spend in the toy section at Asda.
    He is a very Intuitive eater & has Easter eggs left on show. He very rarely asks for any, just an odd time he'll ask if he can open a new one to have some smarties etc, the only time I refuse is when he is about to have his dinner, other than that he has a little bit then says he's had enough or his tummy is full. I never make a fuss about food or "goodies". He actually told me that the dinner ladies give out "Well Done" stickers if the children finish all their school lunches. He only has school dinners on a Friday, he said he has never ever had a sticker. I told him that that was fine, he could leave what ever he didnt want and to tell the dinner ladies I'd said that if ever they tell him to eat it all and he really doesnt want to.

  8. I find the whole 'Food as reward' idea worrying - it's something I certainly grew up with and part of why I always reach for the chocolate/crisps/wine after a tough day! Labelling certain foods as a 'treat' or 'naughty' is so dangerous - it can give power to those foods and increase the likelyhood of 'eating for the sake of it' as my Mom calls it.
    I stumbled across Baby Led Weaning when my son was born and it was a revelation. He's now 2 1/2 yrs and is a very intuitive eater and knows when he's full. That means some days he can put away half a roast chicken (!) and other days he prefers small snacks of fruit or veg - he knows what his body needs and certainly won't be persuaded otherwise! We give supposed 'treats' or pudding-type food at the same time as the main bulk of the meal, and he's been known to stop half way through a pasta dish, eat a banana and then carry on! We try to make all food equal and he seems to agree-although my husband had to hide his disgust at the now infamous black olive, feta and chocolate buttons combination!

  9. I was quite shocked to discover, when tuning in, that I turn straight to the sweet tin when I feel I have done " something good". If I manage to get the bathroom cleaned before the school run I grab a handful of sweets on my way out! If beyond chocolate has done nothing else it has stopped me encouraging my children to clean their plates before they can leave the table, stopped me naming foods " good/bad", and stopped me using sweets as a " pat on the back". For that I am grateful and I hope my children will be too.

  10. I never take food away from my kids as a punishment, but I do occasionally use food as an incentive which I feel ok about. I let my kids eat sweets most of the time, but try to give them information about rotting teeth and spoiling their appetite and then let them make the choice. The other day I told them that if they did their piano practice without a fuss they could spend 50 pence on whatever sweets they chose. I was horrifed when they both chose the most disgusting green looking stuff in a tube that I think was called sludge! But then to my delight they took one taste and found it disgusting and soon after chose an apple instead. So I think its really useful to let kids have what they think they want and then they find they don't really want it.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.