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Shawn Burns

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Shawn is a father, philosopher, and writer who lives in the Silicon Valley. He has been, at times, a stay-at-home dad, a work-at-home dad, a not-so-much-work-at-home dad, and a work-at-the-office dad.

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Empowerment Through Sugar (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cupcake)

By Shawn Burns |

My daughter is now in charge of her own dessert.


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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About Shawn Burns


Shawn Burns

Shawn is a father, philosopher, and writer who lives in the Silicon Valley. He has been, at times, a stay-at-home dad, a work-at-home dad, a not-so-much-work-at-home dad, and a work-at-the-office dad. Read bio and latest posts → Read Shawn's latest posts →

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7 thoughts on “Empowerment Through Sugar (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cupcake)

  1. melanie says:

    I have found that my kids often surprise me with sugar and treats… my son for example would much rather have an icing-free cupcake, but if given the choice between fresh strawberries or a sugary treat he hands-down will ALWAYS choose strawberries (in fact that was most of his breakfast this morning since today is his birthday–he turned 7– so I let him choose)…. my daughter (nearly 4) might grab a cupcake in delight but will probably take 2-3 bites and call it done. I recently read somewhere that when researchers give kids an open buffet of all kinds of foods, veggies, fruits, breads, desserts etc… for say a week and let them choose all of their options… even toddlers end up with a pretty balanced diet. I think that speaks volumes, perhaps the forbidden is ALWAYS sweeter no matter what age

    1. Shawn Burns says:


      I’ve convinced my kids that spinach is a treat.

  2. Marcy says:

    I love this! I’ve really wanted to avoid the sugar-as-reward thing, too, but have also felt stuck by my 4yo wanting to have dessert and claiming to finish dinner after barely eating anything, bc of anticipating dessert. But, I have also seen him eat only half a cookie or cupcake bc that’s just all he wanted to eat (who does that, right??). I think we’ll try what you said here and see how it goes…

    1. Shawn Burns says:


      It’s hard not to treat sugar as a reward when I treat it like a reward for myself. Cutting down on my own sugar has helped.

  3. Korinthia Klein says:

    Nice! We do something similar, but it depends a lot on the individual child. One of my kids is great with the delayed gratification thing, and will save Halloween candy literally until next the next Halloween. Another will happily just keep eating junk until her teeth fall out. But I do think there is something to withholding treats to a degree where they seem irresistible and have more power than they should.

    1. Shawn Burns says:


      I keep forgetting my kids are different people, until they remind me. Forcefully.

  4. Warren says:

    Ah, the bucket treats. After 3 kids, i’ve gotten sick of the battles that come with them. I used to dole them out, as rewards, had all the same issues you did. Finally, one day, I told the kids, “you know what? it’s your candy. you decide what you want to do with it.”
    The oldest automatically gorged herself on every last piece, and was rewarded with the ensuing barfs. The other two don’t really seem to care about it, and eat one or two pieces every now and again. And every time the buckets are replenished, the cycle repeats itself.
    But? I’m not yelling at my kids about candy anymore. And they’re not fat, and they don’t have cavities. Also, the oldest doesn’t eat all the candy until she barfs anymore. She only eats it until she ruins her appetite. This probably makes me a terrible parent, but we each pick and choose our battles, and this is how I chose to deal with this particular one.

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