Would you pay your kids to skip dessert?
I would. At least I think I might start.
Let me explain.
We were at Panera for dinner and our 7yo son, after he had eaten his fair share of chicken noodle soup, sandwich, and yogurt, asked if he could have dessert. The rest of us were still eating, so I fished out a $5 bill and then he went up with my wife to buy his choice. A few minutes later, he marched proudly back, carrying a huge cinnamon roll and $2.51 in change.
Normally we would pay for the desserts using a credit card along with the rest of the food. But this time, seeing the cash really brought home the value of one cinnamon roll. Two dollars and forty nine cents! That’s a lot!! Granted, it was a big one, but its size just served to underscore how inflated (and wasteful) all of this really was. The cinnamon roll was more than he really needed, and $2.49 was more than it should really cost.
So I asked him a question. I asked him if he had the option to take the two dollars and fifty cents and either buy a cinnamon roll or keep the money, what would he do? After all, either way I end up spending the money anyway.
He said he’d keep the money and skip dessert.
Now, we’ve been paying our kids a weekly allowance for a while, and our rule is that when we go to Target or anywhere else, instead of begging us for toys or any other random item they may want on a whim, they can buy whatever they want (as long as it is appropriate) with their own allowance money.
Because of this, our kids now know what $3 will buy, what $5 will buy, and what $10 will buy. They know that for the bigger, better toys, they need to save for a few weeks. They get to make their own decisions and take responsibility for those decisions, instead of all the control and decision responsibility being with us (making us the bad guys every time we say no).
I wondered if the same concept could work with desserts.
My seven year old, the one who said he’d skip dessert and keep the money, is a dessert fiend. He would eat sweets constantly all day if he could. This kid lives for dessert.
So lately, enforcing good nutrition has felt more and more like a battle with him. He’s always trying to see how little “real” food and how much dessert he can get away with. And we’re always reminding him that he needs to make healthful choices.
But what’s his motivation? Dessert is coming anyway, and Mommy and Daddy are always providing it. Any occasions where he has to skip dessert are occasions when Mommy or Daddy are being the bad guys and making the decision for him. And then it’s no longer about living and eating healthfully — it’s about us being mean to him and what little educational value there might have been in the discussion is suddenly lost.
And when you look at the long range consequences of that, how are we preparing him to make good food choices independently? If we always tell him what to eat and what not to eat, how will he ever learn to make his own decisions later when he’s on his own? Maybe we’ve just been raising a monster — one that will go out and buy sweets every chance he gets when he’s on his own to make up for all the sweets that his parents had deprived him of.
And this is where I had my big epiphany.
Why not let him start making the choices now?
Of course if we just ask him whether he wants dessert or not, he’ll always say that he wants dessert — as long as we’re buying.
But once he has the choice of getting the dessert or getting the money, now he has to think about what that dessert is worth to him. Yes, it will taste really yummy right now, but with $2.50 he could buy two Hot Wheels or a pack of Silly Bandz. Or, he could skip a few desserts and get a new stuffed animal or maybe even a Beyblade! Now instead of a hollow choice of sweets or no sweets, a whole new world of possibilities opens up for him.
The point is, the choice is his. He can learn that desserts don’t just magically appear. They have value, and their value can be understood in relation to other things. And he can finally decide for himself that perhaps he doesn’t really need that humongous cinnamon roll.
It’s a far cry from making decisions based on nutritional value and health and other adult concepts, which are vitally important but aren’t real to a seven year old — but I think it’s a step in the right direction.
What about you?