There will be some who will say that I’m trying to ruin birthdays, that I’m an out-of-season Grinch, my heart clearly two sizes too small (likely from lack of sugar and white flour, they’ll snidely surmise).
There will be plenty who will point fingers at me and inquire why I think I should have the power to tell other people what they can and can’t feed their kids, especially for school birthday treats.
And there will be plenty who are simply resistant to change, who prefer to stick with the status quo and say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
What do I have up my sleeve, you ask?
“no treats to pass” policy for birthdays.
No food treats, no gift bags to share with the class, just a birthday book program to help the child be in the spotlight for the day while also keeping the spotlight firmly trained on learning.
I don’t want to make birthdays any less fun. I certainly don’t want to go down in history as “the birthday killjoy” who ruined celebrations for everyone.
I DO however want to help separate the seemingly mandatory association between food and celebration, the idea that the only proper way to have fun is to eat (unhealthy) food.
Turning Over a New Leaf on Birthdays
Here’s the proposal another mom and I are going to present at the parent group meeting next month:
- Birthdays have no treats of any kind to share with the class (not food, toys, pencils, etc.).
- The option to celebrate birthdays is to buy a “birthday book” for the media center in honor of the child.
- The child chooses the book from a box available in the media center the week before his/her birthday.
- The special book can be on display in the child’s classroom that week (for younger grades, the teacher may read the book to the class if there is time).
- Classroom teachers may certainly keep their traditions with crowns, stickers, songs, decorated lockers etc., just no food or gifts.
- Money for the books ($15 per student) is collected at the beginning of the year with all the regular school-starting paperwork, and the librarian is responsible for choosing books that are needed in the media center. This helps support our school and our kids’ learning too!
- Options for those who choose not to send $15 (or cannot afford it):
- Bring a gently used book from home for the classroom
- Borrow a book from the media center for the week to have on display in the classroom (without announcing that it hasn’t been purchased by the family)
We believe that this sort of systemic change at the school level is long overdue and that it must be policy, not optional. The latter would merely stand to make the few children whose families opt for the new way stand out and invite ridicule.
We have five compelling and fundamental reasons that birthday treats are not necessary in the classroom:
- Keeps our school cleaner (we have many brand new classrooms that deserve no crumbs in the carpet)
- Reduces clutter in our homes
- Food allergies are increasing and can be difficult to balance in the classroom
- Childhood obesity and diseases are rising
- Time for learning not lost
How Big is a Two-Pound Bag of Sugar?
I’m pretty excited to bring some statistical analysis to underscore the final two points. Check this out:
If each child in a classroom brings a sweet treat to celebrate their birthdays, how much additional sugar does that total up to per student?
- A Hostess cupcake has 22g of sugar. Let’s assume a cupcake with frosting has considerably more. We’ll use 20-30g of sugar per treat as a fair estimate.
- If an average classroom holds about 25 kids and we throw in our four school-wide holiday parties for good measure, plus the 3-4 “good behavior” celebrations, let’s round up to a total of 35 sweet events while sitting in a classroom.
- 35 events times 20-30g sugar per event = 700-1050g sugar per year, per child.
- This is around TWO POUNDS of added sugar in a year.
- If that sounds harmless, you should know that the average adult 200 years ago consumed about two pounds of sugar in an entire year. That same adult now consumes 2-3 pounds every WEEK.
- Take note that this is only sugar consumed in a classroom, by children with far less body weight than adults, and it doesn’t count all the other treats they get at athletic events, library functions, church, and at home.
- The American Heart Association recommends no more than 38g of sugar (9 tsp.) in an entire day for an adult male and 24g or 6 teaspoons for an adult female. The average adult consumes 88g and the average child consumes (are you sitting down?) a whopping 128g of sugar every day (32 teaspoons or over half a cup)!
- To really put the nail in that coffin, “The largest study of its kind just confirmed an absolutely clear link between excessive sugar and death from heart attacks, strokes, and all types of heart and blood vessel disease.” (source) If you’re interested in 7 more compelling reasons to cut down on sugar, check out the free printable available HERE.
What Could a Teacher Do with a Whole Extra Day to Learn?
As a former teacher, I remember well the lesson planning, detailing all the things the children needed to learn in a day down to the minute. We never got through everything because there were detours to take for great questions, scintillating discussion, kids who weren’t grasping the concepts…and birthday treats. Passing out napkins, treats, munching, and cleaning up sticky fingers could easily take 15 minutes in an average classroom.
How much impact does that make? It could be an entire spelling lesson or the independent work time for a new math concept. Or it could be one full day out of 180, if you’ll bear with me for a little more math:
- 15 minutes x 25 kids = 375 minutes (that’s over 6 hours per school year or one full learning day, spent on birthdays)
The End Game in the Global Village
I have no desire to enter into a discussion at my school about what is healthy and not healthy. (We won’t all see eye to eye on that one, ever.)
I hate to think of teachers having to micromanage what kinds of treats are acceptable with any sort of “healthy treat” policy anyway (a disaster waiting to happen).
This isn’t about your kid, or my kid, or ruining birthdays for everyone.
And I don’t want to tell other parents how to parent their children.
But I do want to make a difference in some of the alarming statistics that are playing out in our children’s generation, the rise in obesity, diabetes, cancer and more. I do think it takes a village to raise our children, and I want to know that other parents would have my kids’ best interests in mind as I do theirs.
I don’t need to be in charge of what all kids eat – but I do want to be in charge of what my kids eat, which means that other people shouldn’t be feeding them 25-35 times a year in the classroom alone.
Most of all, I want my kids to outlive me, not be the first generation in recorded history to have a lower life expectancy than the previous one.
We compromised and decided to pilot an idea in 3 classrooms – to send home food birthday treats in baggies, such that the parents and kids could decide together if they should be eaten and when. The principal would talk to the 3 teachers and see if they had any other ideas. I was skeptical, but it was the only improvement on the current system offered, so I figured “let’s see what happens.”
So…after 2 weeks this is the note I got from our principal:
Thank you for your recent conversation about healthy eating at school. It has been a busy week…so I thank you for your patience.
Below is a list of things that we have done, are doing, and will continue to do to encourage health in [our school]:
- café serves healthy food options only
- there are no longer vending machines at school with pop or snacks
- our [district] elementary parent handbook recommends healthy snacks
- teachers are encouraged to share birthday treats at the end of the day whenever possible
- there is a list of alternative to food rewards regularly given to teachers as a reminder
- in many classes, children do bring own snacks for breaks and if not, the donated class item is asked to be a healthy one
- our running club stresses exercise
- snacks for school-wide events include healthy items, i.e. grapes
- teachers teach about good nutrition
- physical education classes encourage exercise and health and are offered twice a week
- Walk-a-Thon is major fundraiser
Regarding conversations with the [3 teachers]:
- a few children take their own snacks approved by a parent for times when there are birthday celebrations and your child is welcome to do that
- birthday books and other items are always welcomed
- children are taught to say “no thank you, but Happy Birthday anyway” if they don’t like the treat or don’t want it, there is no pressure
- children either say yes, please or no thank you and students have the opportunity to get their own snack if they decline the birthday treat
- we will be happy to provide a baggie, if you would like your child to take the treat home for you to check or save for another day
Thank you for the article about the school that did not have treats, interestingly however, students had to apply to go to that school so those supportive of that philosophy would know that upfront. Preschools are the same.
Since there are many diverse opinions about food in society in general and since the public schools represent all those individuals, please understand that many viewpoints must be considered. Many parents value celebrating birthdays by having their child sharing their favorite food and have shared their viewpoint. Hopefully, by knowing your child has options and an opportunity to do something different and by reviewing the bulleted list of ten action items, you, too will feel like your viewpoint is heard and considered.
Thank you for understanding.
Please call if you have any questions.”
Let me help you read between the lines on a few items:
1. the walk-a-thon ended with popsicles and included ice cream parties for all classrooms that brought in their forms on time (+ a pizza party for highest earning class)
2. everything in the first list is already happening – or at least in print, not always in practice (for example, many many many food rewards are offered by individual teachers, the principal, and at school events)
- Healthy School Treat Ideas (when you’re not allowed to make homemade)
- My no-sugar Halloween party
- The no-sugar Christmas party
- “We Ate Junk Food and Turned Out Just Fine…Right? from Real Mom Nutrition
- Getting Rid of After-Athletics Junk Food too from 100 Days of Real Food
- What happened when School Bites wrote a letter about junk food to her school
- More reasons why I don’t agree with food-centered celebrations in school