by Risa Green
It’s Valentine’s Day. My children just got home from school, and I’m trying to figure out when “I love you” became synonymous with “I hope you die of a sugar overdose.” I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, Valentine’s Day meant giving cheap little cards with pictures of Snoopy or Miss Piggy or the Incredible Hulk to everyone in the class (and that means everyone, including the boy who used to lick his locker and the girl who insisted on talking like a horse), so that nobody’s feelings got hurt. Maybe the teacher gave everyone a heart-shaped cookie and a few conversation hearts, but that was it. There was no such thing as Fun Dip packs with To: and From: written on the front, or Valentines that come with little holes to stick heart-shaped lollipops through, or mini-bags of Skittles that come with stick-on cards. Multiply that by twenty-five kids, and suddenly, Valentine’s Day has become Halloween, the sequel, and I’m not talking about the scary movie with Jason in it.
Being the (selectively) anti-establishment mom that I am, I refuse to send candy to school with my kids’ Valentines. To their friends, I’m sure I’m like that annoying dentist in the neighborhood who always gives out toothbrushes on Halloween. But a little peer pressure has never stopped me from being a geek before, and it’s not going to stop me now. This year, I sent my son with Spongebob tattoos, and my daughter with pencils (for the boys) and heart-shaped Silly Bandz (for the girls). But, alas, I was the only one. They each came home with shoeboxes filled with the aforementioned Fun Dips, lollipops and Skittles, not to mention chocolate hearts, Hershey kisses, and jumbo packs of Sour Patch Straws. And that’s not including the stuff they had already eaten on the bus ride home. It’s also not including the “special treat” my third grader received from her kindergarten buddy (my daughter: well, actually, she forgot it, but then her teacher felt bad for me, so she got me a donut, which actually was really delicious), or the one my kindergartener received from his third grade buddy (my son: I got a really big card with Hershey kisses, Jolly Ranchers and Starburst on it, and a brownie). For the first time since, well, since Halloween, my kids came home from school and didn’t ask for a snack the second they walked in the door.
Now, I know it might seem like I’m poking fun at this Valentine’s junk fest, and I am. Kind of. Because if it were just on Valentine’s Day, I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with it. But really, the junk-fest is just a symptom of a much, much bigger problem. The amount of junk food that my kids consume is staggering, and most of it they get not at home, but at school. It seems like every day there’s an excuse for junk: birthdays, days of school that end in zero, the school’s birthday, I Can Read! Parties, re-enactments of stories, science experiments, and the list goes on and on and on. Legislators talk about taking soda machines out of high schools, but nobody talks about the onslaught of cupcakes and cookies and candy that our kids are regularly assaulted with at school. I’m not a crazy, no-sugar allowed mom, either. My kids are allowed to have something sweet every day, but more often than not they’ve already had something sweet at school, and they end up having a second treat for dessert because I wasn’t aware of the first one. If you’re trying to instill positive, healthy eating habits at home, like I am, it can be frustrating when you’re constantly being undermined by your kids’ school.
I’m not saying we should eliminate treats from school entirely, but there are easy solutions for cutting back. I know of schools that limit birthday celebrations to once a month, so that all of the April birthdays celebrate together, and each kid only gets one treat. I know of schools that don’t allow candy on Valentine’s Day, and that limit candy to five pieces per kid on Halloween. I know of schools that leave platters of fresh fruits and veggies in the hallway every days, so that if a kid is hungry in between classes, he can go grab a few carrot sticks, or some apple slices. None of this is radical; all of this is common sense. Our kids will not die if they don’t get cupcakes on someone’s birthday. Our kids will not die if they don’t get candy on Valentine’s day. But if we continue to teach our kids that junk food equals fun, that junk food equals celebrations, that junk food equals special occasions, we’re setting our kids up for a lifetime of unhealthy associations with food.