Blog Post for: Marlene B. Schwartz, PhD
01/20/2010 | Marlene B. Schwartz, PhD
The Party That Doesn’t Stop
I frequently get asked about my view on classroom parties. Last week, I wrote a very long e-mail to someone in response to this question, so I thought I would post what I wrote so I can share these views with all of you.
In my entire career of treating obesity, eating disorders, and studying food policies around the country, nothing has gotten people so worked up and upset as the idea of "banning" cupcakes or junk food from school parties. This issue has caused more disrespectful behavior among parents at PTO meetings than nearly anything else.
This discussion about cupcakes is really about something else - I think it is about a fundamental belief system about the role of school policies in general. Some people believe that public schools should answer to the tax paying citizens who support them, and no policies should be made that aren't acceptable to all citizens. Other people believe that when children are in a school, the school serves as the "in loco parentis" so it has both the responsibility and rights of someone who is parenting a child. Personally, I am in the second camp.
The empirical research on children's eating is very clear about a few things. Children eat what is most familiar. Children eat what is most easily available to them. Children eat more of a food when they are given a large serving of it, compared to when they are given a smaller serving of it. Children learn over time to prefer foods that are used as rewards. Children have an innate preference for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods. Children are heavily influenced by marketing and peer modeling.
Teaching children how to eat treat foods is hardly a problem - there is no cupcake deficiency in our country. Left on their own, surrounded by foods high in sugar, salt, and fat, humans and animals will do the same thing - overeat those foods because they override our innate ability to feel satiated. That is why so many people say things like they "can't eat just one potato chip" or "are addicted to chocolate." It's hard to self-regulate these foods, and exposing children to large amounts of them more often makes the problem worse, not better.
We also have research showing that up to 30% of children in our country are overweight (compared to 0.28% with anorexia nervosa). There is no evidence that American children are not getting enough cupcakes, candy, soda, chips, fries etc. In fact, there is abundant evidence that children are eating much too many servings of those "treat" foods, and not nearly as many as recommended as fruits and vegetables.
The challenge is teaching children how to eat healthy foods - and that's 100 times harder if the apples are competing with the cookies on the table. Schools need to work with parents to provide as many opportunities as possible to promote the foods that are filled with nutrients. When the school provides students with empty calories, not only are they not helping, but they are making it worse for parents.
The term "moderation" has a technical definition which few people know. If you go to mypyramid.gov and look up the discretionary calories of elementary school aged children, you will find the following:
* These amounts are appropriate for individuals who get less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity (i.e., increases your heart rate) most days.
** These amounts are appropriate for individuals who get at least 30 minutes (lower calorie level) to at least 60 minutes (higher calorie level) of moderate physical activity most days.
Now, the vast majority of schools in the country do not provide over 60 minutes of real physical activity - where your heart rate increases substantially - so schools should only be allowed to assume that children are in the category of kids that get fewer than 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity. If you look at those numbers for elementary school aged children, this only leaves room for 130 to 195 calories per day. That's really not a lot of calories - that's maybe one serving of potato chips, or two medium sized cookies, or one small cupcake. Any one of those things uses up a child's discretionary calories for the day.
So, the question is who should be teaching children how to "spend' those calories? I argue it is the parent's right and responsibility to do that job. As the in loco parentis, the school must err on the side of safety and caution. If there are parents who do not want their children being fed extra foods at school, then that needs to become the default position. No child is going to suffer from a lack of party food, but there are many children in schools across this country who are at risk of eating too many discretionary calories, and it's the school's responsibility not to contribute to that problem.
In my family, we have dessert after dinner each night. These desserts are sized so they approximate 150 to 200 calories. My girls play sports most days, so they would be in the physically active group. I do not deprive my children, but I have taught them what moderation is. But it hasn't been easy. When they were younger - in preschool and early elementary school - there were not just the occasional days when they got "treats" when I wasn't there. It happened 25 times a year for birthday parties in the classroom, plus other holidays (e.g., Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, end of year, etc.). Add that to birthday parties at other children's houses, times the grandparents visited, PTO bake sales several times a year for fundraising, treats at other classroom events such as when parents came in to see performances, and you can see that pretty soon it is not exactly "every now and then" that other people are feeing my children their desserts. Any parent who says, "well my child's not overweight so I don't have to worry about this," is fooling themselves. In our country 30% of children are overweight and 60% of adults are. Poor habits catch up with you eventually. Eating a poor diet is a bad idea for anyone.
So we agree that parents need to teach children moderation. But every time someone else feeds your child dessert when you're not there, they are making your job harder. And if you are one of the 30% of parents who have an overweight child, they are downright being disrespectful to you. They don't know what you have planned to feed your child that day. They don't know if you've got a special dinner planned, or have already made dessert, or even if you had a lot of dessert yesterday so weren't going to have any tonight.
One reason why I get so upset about this is because I get e-mails from parents saying that they were working so hard at home to teach their children good eating habits - especially those with overweight children - and then the school is basically making it harder for them to do this job.
A principal in my town said that his school "is not a Chuck E. Cheese." The schools are already pressed for time to get the work done and provide time for physical activity, recess, and a million other valuable things. Celebrations in school are fine, but there is no reason why they need to include food. In my district they haven't had food at parties for a few years, and the kids play games, go outside, do special art projects, and more. In my opinion, parents who rely on junk food to make it a "party" are just too lazy to come up with a better way to entertain the children and recognize the special event that is being celebrated. It takes some creativity, but it absolutely can be done.
Every child in my district, as I am sure yours, has a birthday party at home. They all go trick-or-treating from home. None of them will miss the food at school parties - it's the parents, not the children, who get so worked up about this.