If you grew up in the 70’s or 80’s (or even before!), you will remember that a ‘treat’ had a very different role in your life than it tends to in the lives of today’s children. A treat was something special, saved for school holidays; when a guest came round with a cake or tea bun or maybe once each week when you were allowed dessert, an ice cream after school or a special purchase from the canteen. Treats were occasional, well-earned and you were never quite sure when you were due for another.
Fast-forward 20-30 years and our kids’ lives are dictated by treats – a daily afternoon tea purchase while mum has coffee with her friends; a drink when out shopping, an extra sweet food in the lunchbox, dessert after dinner. Forget special occasions, every day in the lives of these kids are special. Afternoon smoothies, sushi, milkshakes and ice creams are an almost daily occurrence, as is dessert, regular purchases at coffee shops and service stations as well as the standard school holiday, party and special outings food and drink purchases.
And what is wrong with that you may be thinking especially if you have children and like to have the means to give them a nice life experience? Why shouldn’t I be able to enjoy a coffee with my children after school, or let them experience the tastes and flavours would have liked to as a child?
Apart from the dietary issues associated with children’s diets being dominated with a high proportion of calorie dense food (Ausise kids get more than 30% of their daily calories from ‘extra foods’) is that when children, both younger and older children constantly receive what they want and ask for, they become not so good at hearing no, nor do they learn the art of delayed gratification. They learn to make endless demands on adults, become frustrated and badly behaved when they are told no and since much success in life is dependent on learning to work and wait for things, we leave them waiting for a rather large shock at some point in their adult lives when they are finally told no, or have to wait a little longer and work for something whether it be in their work, relationships, in weight control or their own financial management.
Sure, a treat once a week in a lunchbox will do no harm, but the real question is, how many ‘treats’ are they really having, are they being given too much in general and is it a stronger and more powerful lesson if they learn to work and wait for it. Harvard academic Dr Walter Mishel, wrote widely on the concept of ‘delayed gratification’ and success in life after studying 4 year old children and their ability to refrain from eating a marshmallow in order to be given a second marshmallow 15 minutes later, when they were left alone in a room with it. This landmark psychological study found 15 years later that 100% of the children who were able to refrain from eating the marshmallow were successful with good grades at school, higher ratings of happiness and life satisfaction and positive psychosocial relationships. On the other hand, 80% of the children who were not able to wait for the second marshmallow before eating the first were performing poorly at school, were less likely to have gone to college and had lower levels of reported happiness.
So, perhaps as parents, it is really time to ask ourselves honestly, ‘Are my kids having too many treats? Perhaps they do not really need something special after school each day; and maybe dessert should only be an occasional treat? While our natural tendency may be to give our kids ‘more’ the simple act of holding back a little may be the best thing you can do to not only control their weight, but to set them up for a successful life in general, as the learn the important life lesson of ‘delayed gratification’.