Christine Koh


I'm Christine Koh, a music and brain neuroscientist turned multimedia creative. I'm the founder + editor of Boston Mamas, co-author of Minimalist Parenting, co-host of the Edit Your Life podcast, and creative director at Women Online. Drop me a line; I'd love to chat about how we can work together!

Negotiating Sugar Battles

sugar.jpgI know that I’m extremely lucky that Laurel generally is a happy and agreeable kid who isn't prone to meltdowns. But last week, after a fabulous day spent in the Public Garden, followed by lunch at the Au Bon Pain on Boylston Street, the rest of the day was tainted by the crisis that broke out over a giant Easter basket full of candy - strategically positioned at the Au Bon Pain checkout.
I have a few beefs here (and then I'll get on to the tips and strategies):

First, I’m not a parent who refuses my daughter sweets. In fact, just minutes prior to the cash register incident, Laurel finished eating an M&M cookie the size of her head.

Second, I know it is classic end cap marketing, but I dread retailers that offer bright, shiny, and sugary objects at checkout (it’s one of the reasons I was so excited to learn that Stop & Shop offers family friendly lanes with healthy snacks). Seriously, Laurel’s grudge lasted from incident all the way to bedtime.

Third, it wasn’t Laurel’s sobbing meltdown that bothered me (and actually, she even waited until we were well clear of APB to let loose) – after all, she is four years old. What bugged me is that I don’t want my kid to be greedy and bratty. Plus, I never would have pulled that sort of thing with my parents so it made me wonder whether this behavior is due to my parenting (total downer).

Fourth, only semi-related but definitely worth mention, that ABP bathroom was disgusting. It was generally gross and dirty, and also rather broken. The toilet paper dispenser hung from a thread, and there was a hole punched in the wall and stuffed with paper towels. Laurel actually thought this hole was the trash. I hope someone at Au Bon Pain reads this post and fixes up that bathroom.

But I digress. My main issue that day was the battle over sweets, coupled with my realization that over the last several weeks it seems as if we’ve been dealing with dessert negotiation more and more (our typical rule is no more than one treat per day). I’m not quite sure whether this evolved from peer influence at lunch (I only include fruit or fruit + one Hershey’s kiss for sweet content compared to Laurel’s peers, who apparently get way more loot) or periodic blurry lines on weekends (if you have kringle in the morning for breakfast can you still have dessert after dinner?).

Furthermore, it occurred to me that even the standard of a maximum of one sweet treat per day is so far from what I grew up on, where we only had sweets on special occasions (e.g., birthdays), or if we earned the money to buy candy from the store ourselves. (Though I don’t think my parent’s extreme withholding strategy was the answer either.)

Jon and I had a long discussion that evening about how to move forward to try to reduce these annoying negotiations. Here are some strategies that have worked well for us to date, as well as some new strategies we’re trying to implement. If you have tips for negotiating sugar battles with your kids, please share in the comments below!

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  • Stay consistent with the rules. Whether you do sweets once a week or once a day, be as consistent as possible with the rules. I think our periodic slippage (especially on weekends) has contributed to the current feeling that sweets are negotiable (or obtainable with enough pestering).

  • Be explicit with each sugary interaction. It occurred to me and Jon that as a 4-year-old with her eyes on the immediate prize, Laurel probably doesn’t have the same concept of time as we do. For us, dessert is typically after dinner, so if, for example, we’re in a situation faced with treats at lunchtime, we ask her whether she is sure she wants dessert now, because it means she won’t have any after dinner. Or we make a point of saying that it’s fine for her to have the dessert after lunch, but then that’s it for the day.

  • If need be, split it up. Another strategy that we have been experimenting with is still reinforcing to Laurel that she gets a maximum of one treat per day, but allowing her to split it up so she gets half after lunch and half after dinner.

  • Feed fruit first. We always make sure that after a meal Laurel has fruit before dessert. She loves fruit, so it doesn’t seem a chore, and in addition to being more nutritious, it fills her belly so there’s less room for dessert.

  • Reinforce the concept of listening to your belly. Laurel is still very good about stopping eating when she’s full (versus just eating because food is there). The one time this didn’t happen was when she experienced her first s’more this past summer – in which case, she ate two and felt sick to her stomach after. So in the face of an unusual, large, or decadent dessert, we always remind her to listen to her belly and be sure to stop when she’s full so she doesn’t get sick. We can always pack up the rest to take home for the next day.

  • Pose a challenge and reward. The strange thing about the above ABP episode was that it followed a week where we had, as a family, decided to try to go dessert free for 3 days. The impetus was that Laurel wanted to try a banana split and we said that it was such a big dessert that she probably should go a few days beforehand without. So we told her that if she could go the 3 days without dessert, she could order whatever kind of sundae she wanted. Amazingly, the 3 days passed easily and when she did get that banana split, she still ate a kid-sized portion and left the rest. I think we should do more of those kinds of exercises to show her how sweets are more habit than need.

  • Model non-dessert behavior. Clearly, Jon and my own love for sweets is part of the problem. And after the aforementioned 3 days passed, I was amazed by how easy it was to go without. We clearly were in a habit of eating sweets. So given that, plus my current commitment to a shredding challenge with some online friends, I decided to continue on and see if I could make it through a whole week without dessert, which I did (even resisting flan!) with no problem. I think it helped to model this behavior for Laurel (she constantly was offering to share her dessert with me and I would explain why I wasn't eating it) and I will continue to do so as I work on curbing my own intake. It feels enormously good for a treat to be just that – a treat that is special and to be enjoyed.

  • Implement teeth brushing as a consequence of dessert. One thing that we’re currently not great about but that I think could help our cause is to have Laurel (and us) brush immediately following any dessert when we’re at home. Not only would this be great on the oral hygiene front, but I suspect that since teeth brushing is considered sort of a chore, it may make Laurel think twice about whether some treats are worth the effort.

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    Ultimately, I've been so happy reducing my own sugar intake and I hope to reduce Laurel's so she's not indulging every day. But at the moment, I'd be happy to get to a point where we don't battle over sugar as we did at the ABP checkout.

    Again, if you have tips for negotiating sugar battles with your kids, please share in the comments below!

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