We tend toward not using food as reward/punishment objects in our house, but we’re also a little miserly with the treats: The kids get some watered-down juice, if they want it, maybe once a day; they get ice cream sometimes at the park if the ice cream dude comes by and it’s after lunch already; and they have the Bucket Treats.
Bucket Treats started out as just laziness: after Halloween one year, the bright orange jack-o-lantern bucket full of candy was placed out of reach, up on top of the refrigerator, so that my 3-year old didn’t gorge herself on Nerds and Tootsie Pops and get high and taste numbers and pass out. We started doling items out of the Bucket every once in a while, Bucket Treats, and stretched that Halloween candy out over a couple of months.
As the kids got older, they started to ask for Bucket Treats more and more often, and they noticed that we were most likely to dish them out after dinner. They started asking for Bucket Treats before dinner, during dinner, and after dinner, and would, in response to my insistence that they couldn’t have a Bucket Treat if they didn’t eat their dinner (If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?), claim to be finished with their dinners fairly early. This never, ever worked on me.
But it also backfired on me a little. The kids started rushing through dinner, knowing that they could legitimately ask for a Bucket Treat if they were actually done. The point had become all about the Bucket Treat, and the sit-down meal time was getting shorter and shorter. Now it seemed like the kids thought of Bucket Treats as rewards for eating all of their dinner, and that hadn’t been the point of keeping the candy out of reach.
Now that my daughter is older, wiser, and more mature (she’s five), I’ve decided to start trying something new. When we have a dessert or a Bucket Treat option, I’ve begun placing it next to her plate partway through the meal and telling her “You can decide when you think you’ve had enough dinner, and then eat your treat. It’s your choice.”
The first time I did this, I thought it was going to blow up in my face. And it did, mildly. She claimed immediate completion of her dinner, checked to see that I had been serious about it being her choice, and then scarfed down the dessert. Whoops.
But I tried it again. And again. And the most recent time I’ve tried it, there the treat sat, untouched, until her entire meal was eaten. Wow.
Imagine: If you treat your children like autonomous rational agents, everyone now and then they act like autonomous rational agents.
We’ll see how long this lasts.
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