We live in a frighteningly litigious society, don’t you think? I’m looking at you, burglars who sue homeowners because they got injured during a B&E…and so many more!
I’m curious if you can imagine a situation where you would want to sue your child’s elementary school or preschool.
As you turn over possible scenarios in your mind, they’re probably all terrifying and traumatic to your child, the kind of thing you hope never will happen in real life and especially in your family.
But what about the birthday cupcake?
Would you call your lawyer if you had brought some lovely cupcakes with one-inch-thick blue frosting as your third-grader’s ninth birthday treat, and because of school policy, the ladies in the office tossed the whole box in the trash?
>>Katie’s head explodes considering that…<<
I know how I feel about that scenario, but apparently, it’s a real threat.
I’ve been saying for a number of years that I could never go back to teaching full time in the classroom because it’s not the kind of place where I can be passionate about teaching children without worrying about too many things.
A few years ago, I proposed a birthday celebration policy change at my kids’ elementary school. I wanted to request that food treats be banned to make life easier for everyone, especially kids with allergies. My proposal was flatly denied by the principal and in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to present my ideas to the parent group.
You can read about my sugary math and how far beyond the American Heart Association recommendations a simple cupcake for every child’s birthday takes our kids here and see the principal’s response in this old Facebook post, but today, I really want to roadmap the logic.
Let’s dig into research and statistics, and by golly, if it’s not too crazy, common sense to lay out the argument that school birthday treats should have been banned decades ago and replaced with healthy birthday treats that aren’t food.
Why Should We Do Away with Birthday Treats at School?
Food matters – from exclusion to obesity and food addiction, from food allergies to learning disruption, and finally, because quite simply, we need to build healthier habits in our kids or we’re going to lose the entire generation to obesity, diabetes, depression and more.
Our current principal is more flexible and open to the idea of non-food birthday treats in our elementary school, but he explains that it needs to be taken slowly and carefully. Too many parents don’t like change, and unfortunately, too many parents were raised in a society that equates celebrations with food. And not only food, but sweet, sugary, carb-loaded junk food.
It’s very hard to change these habits once we’re adults.
Ahem: case in point, litigious society, see above.
It’s why we need to start our kids off right with the best habits we can both at home and at school.
Birthday Treats Can Leave Kids Out
Whether expectation is reality or not, when a tradition is laid down and when a bar is set, kids feel like they need to live up to that expectation. If most kids bring cupcakes or cookies or donuts, or some sweet treat (usually purchased at the store), all children will feel like they are supposed to, even if the school explains that they don’t have to.
What does this mean for kids with a low socioeconomic status? We do a lot in our schools to teach kids not to bully. We do a lot in our preschools to try to keep learning and experiences equitable for all kids.
We have special-education inclusion classrooms.
We are careful not to discriminate by race or gender.
We do so much to level the playing field, and yet when it comes to birthday treats, too many teachers, administrators, and parents can’t see beyond the “need” for celebration to the kids who feel left out because their family doesn’t have enough money to buy a treat or enough time to make something that will make their birthday celebration as special as all the other kids’.
There are plenty of ways that we can make sure all kids, from those whose parents have high-powered high paying jobs to those who are getting free or reduced lunch, can equally enjoy and appreciate their very own birthday celebration in the classroom.
Birthdays Don’t Need to Equal Sugar
The statistics on health in our children are dismal. I will keep shouting from the rooftops until people begin to listen that as each graph increases at an alarming rate, we really will see the prediction come true that this generation will be the first not to outlive their parents, and it’s going to be because of chronic disease and too many prescriptions too early.
- an estimated 18.5% of all U.S. children and adolescents are obese (and more are overweight!) (source)
- there has been a 30.5% overall increase in type 2 diabetes in youth ages 10-19 (source)
- the percentage of US children 4-17 years of age with an ADHD diagnosis by a health care provider, as reported by parents, continues to increase each year. Rates of ADHD diagnosis were between 2001 and 2010 increased 24%. (source)
Not only do all these diseases increase because our kids are eating too much sugar and not enough fruits and vegetables, but we are also beginning to see an epidemic of food addiction. We know that sugar is addictive, perhaps as addictive as cigarettes, and yet we build every celebration – and when it comes down to it, every normal event like a soccer game or getting a good grade on a test – around sugary treats.
I will be sharing an interview with an expert on food addiction for the Healthy Parenting Connector in 2020, so we have a lot more to say about this, but suffice it to say that kids aren’t eating well and their habits are not being formed well in childhood when it comes to the lens through which to see sugary treats and junk food.
Birthday Treats and Rising Food Allergies
There’s no denying that food allergies have increased both in our children and in adults.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention report that between 1997-1999 and 2009- 2011, food allergy prevalence among children increased by 50 percent. (source)
Statistics aside, ask any parent or any teacher and they will say, usually with a look of stupefied wonder on their face, that they can’t believe how many kids have food allergies now. Almost everyone follows this exclamation with the sentiment, “I don’t remember kids in my elementary school having food allergies at all…what is going on?”
Today is not the time to talk about the root cause of the increasing food allergies and sensitivities we see, although it’s something that I definitely want to dig into and help solve for our American children.
The fact is that there are plenty of kids for whom birthday treats simply are not safe.
And now we come back to kids feeling excluded. When that cupcake with one-inch high blue frosting comes in, all our kids with gluten sensitivities, dairy allergies, or nut allergies most likely can’t participate. Those who are sensitive to food coloring are left out.
And even though certainly they may bring their own treat, is this really fair and equitable? Is it really worth allowing one child to have exactly what their parents want them to have for their birthday celebration at the expense of other children’s joy and contentment for their school day?
As a parent of a child who now has a food sensitivity (to dairy), I know what her face looks like on days when birthday treats are served. Even if it’s something that she wouldn’t normally want to eat, she’s absolutely crushed.
It impacts her entire day, socially and academically, and there’s really absolutely nothing I can do about it at home.
Leveling the playing field is the only thing I can think of to help kids with food allergies and sensitivities feel included in the classroom.
Leveling the playing field means to get rid of food at birthday celebrations.
School Is Not the Time for Sugary Treats
Honestly, I feel like the exclusion of socioeconomics and food allergies and the impact sugar has on our kids’ health should be enough.
However, I think the case should also be made that we are disrupting learning time when teachers need to pass out napkins and provide a special time of 10 to 15 minutes for kids to eat these treats and clean up after themselves.
Yes, a birthday child is worth 15 minutes of class time, but does it really need to be focused all around sugar?
It’s totally possible – and here are a few dozen non-food birthday treat ideas for the classroom to help you brainstorm – to create incredible and fun birthday celebrations that not only don’t include sugar but can actually help the students move toward their benchmark goals and continue learning.
Amazingly, learning can be fun too, even without a sugary treat to reward a child.
Building Healthy Habits with Celebrations
My interviews in the Healthy Parenting Connector are always fascinating, and Dr. Dina Rose, a sociologist and food expert and author of It’s Not About the Broccoli, really opened my mind about the psychology of food and how it’s not only about what we eat, but about when and how we eat it.
When we always connect sugar to a celebration, we teach kids in their brains that a celebration should require sugar.
We also teach kids’ brains that sugar is exciting, while broccoli, for example, is not.
Imagine if children brought in roasted broccoli, or sweet potatoes mashed with butter, or a nice fresh garden salad to celebrate their birthday. It would be too much of a paradigm shift; everyone would assume that that was not even a fun celebration, that someone was being a party pooper even though just the act of eating food together, talking with your friends should be celebratory.
When we create these habits as a society, we set our kids up for always looking for junk food in every celebration, and it’s a very dangerous habit. It definitely plays into the obesity epidemic, and these are the habits that are incredibly hard to break as adults.
See above, parents who consider calling their lawyers over cupcakes…LE SIGH. Or consider how YOU feel about a celebration – does it require food? Is the food nourishing?
Does Having Food at Special Occasions Increase Anxiety in Children? Parents?
One of the more alarming statistics I see is that one in three of our high schoolers are experiencing either depression or anxiety.source
When I interviewed our school counselors and teachers from K-8th grade in 2018 for some posts on depression and anxiety, all of them without question said that they see anxiety increasing in children and they see anxiety in children at younger ages.
Even one of our kindergarten teachers identifies serious anxiety in five-year-olds. Five-year-olds, people!
We really need to do everything we can to decrease opportunities for anxiety in our kids, and, unfortunately, what should be a fun celebration creates an opportunity to increase anxiety in these children.
When we think about exclusion, are kids worrying about their food allergies or about being left out because of socioeconomics?
Are kids worrying about keeping up with the Joneses and bringing something that everyone will like?
And for us parents, quite honestly, I feel like anytime we need to bring something, some food treat to school, it increases our stress and anxiety unnecessarily. I hear so many parents say that they have too much to do and would do anything to have more taken off their plate.
So why not food treats for birthdays?
I know at this point that not everyone is on board with what I’m saying. I know some of these arguments are weaker than others, and that’s okay. They’re all valid, and if you want to choose to fixate on one of the weak arguments and say that my entire proposal is null and void, that’s fine.
But for those of you who are still willing to employ your logic and common sense, let’s consider some of the common objections that parents are sure to say in a situation like this.
If you’re ready to be a food advocate with me and take these ideas to your own elementary school or even preschool, you’re definitely going to want rebuttals to each of these common objections.
Parent Objection: Just Feed Your Own Child
When it comes to community treats, when one person speaks up and says they’re not happy with the situation, immediately someone else jumps in and says, “Oh, that’s fine. You can just feed your own child.” …which is true…
A family can definitely send in their own treat for a child at a birthday or require that their child skip those birthday junk-food treats. However, to tell a family to just feed their own child when everyone else around them has blue frosting smeared on their faces and cupcake crumbs on their fingertips, that’s asking a lot of a child!
When we think about exclusion and leveling the playing field, just saying “feed your own child” is the opposite of what we’re going for as a generally tolerant society, now isn’t it?
Parent Objection: Kids Deserve to Celebrate/Feel Special
I’ll never get into an argument with a parent and tell them that their child doesn’t deserve to have a birthday celebration. Of course all of our children deserve to be special and have a little bit of a special day when it’s their birthday.
My point is: do we need to create these habits that all celebrations and all special occasions need to have sugary junk food?
Can we figure out how to celebrate and make our kids feel special in healthier, more wholesome ways?
That’s the bottom line.
- Yes to celebrations.
- Yes to feeling special.
- No to connecting it all back to sugar.
Parent Objection: Let Kids Make Their Own Choices
When I originally proposed a non-food birthday celebration policy to our former principal, she used this objection. She explained that she wants to help us raise independent children who are capable of making their own healthy choices.
I fully agree with this! However, I don’t think it’s possible to expect a 5-, 6-, 7-, or even 8-year-old, who is in a room without their parents, to have a cupcake with one-inch blue frosting set in front of them, and without any conversation or direction from the loving adults around them, to make the best choice (even part of the time).
I think we’re just asking for trouble when we say we’ll teach kids to make good choices by throwing them into very tough situations at very young ages. This is where I’ll be the one saying, “Let’s have parents teach their kids to make good choices in situations where they have a little bit more control. Perhaps the school should be responsible for teaching logic and grade thinking skills without creating situations with extreme temptation and social peer pressure.”
This is one that gets me pretty riled up, so I always hope I don’t have to answer it face-to-face so that I don’t make evil faces.
Parent Objection: “Everything in Moderation”
My favorite: “Everything in moderation.”
Unfortunately, as any logical adult can see by looking around our society, we’ve lost perspective on what moderation exactly is.
“Everything in moderation” doesn’t mean everything full of sugar all the time for every child’s birthday all throughout the year, and parties and reading rewards, and other rewards, and more rewards, and library classes, and Sunday school classes, and soccer games, and basketball games…!
It’s exhausting just to think about how “moderate” the kids’ opportunities for sugar have become.
They are NOT moderate. They are excessive.
They are beyond what our kids’ physiology can handle. They are beyond what our kids’ psychologies can handle.
The “everything in moderation” excuse is outdated and just. plain. wrong.
How Non-Food Birthday Celebrations Can be Truly Special
Rather than focus on what we can’t have, focus on what we can do:
- make the birthday child feel special
- share a moment with their former teachers and principal
Print the List! (+ bonus letter to administration)
We made it pretty (and practical!) for you — print a list of non-food birthday treats, PLUS a sample letter to administration to request a slow shift in policy, gently, and a simple one-pager of the ideas to share with your school.
We can be part of the movement to shift birthday celebrations away from junk food, one child and one parent at a time!
A “No Food” Birthday Policy is Easier for Everyone
For the record, my gentle response to the parents who say, “It’s a parent’s responsibility to decide what’s best for their own child,” is that they are absolutely 100% correct, dead-on right.
The problem isn’t that we all need to agree on what kids should eat, and I have no desire to tell other parents what to do with their own kids – but when we’re feeding each other’s children, in a very real way the one bringing the food is forcing that decision upon the child.
For a child with a food allergy or sensitivity, they’re put in an awfully tough spot. They have to bow out of all the fun and celebration, and it’s not like it’s their choice to have a food allergy.
For children (like mine) whose parents simply prefer fewer sweets, they’re also in a tough spot, and so am I.
When other parents are deciding what my child eats when he’s out of my home, it either simply makes the decision for me (is that fair?) OR singles my kid out as the one who can’t participate, which applies to both parent and child. I’d like to take my kids to get ice cream on a sunny summer Friday evening just as much as anyone, but if they’ve had cupcakes and doughnuts at school already that day, I feel like the choice is stripped from me.
So…the real answer to “each parent taking responsibility for their own child” is to stop feeding each other’s children altogether.
If the policy simply included no food, it makes life easier for those who have food restrictions and those who make different lifestyle choices than the mainstream, and I don’t believe it makes life any more difficult for those who wished they could bring cupcakes.
In fact, they get to skip a trip to the store, and they can still do whatever they wish at home at their child’s family birthday celebration or kids’ birthday party.