Chris Liebig of A Blog About School shared with me a recent post in which he describes how his school is handing out Dairy Queen coupons for perfect attendance. Chris points out how this scheme is misguided in about ten different ways -- his post is definitely worth a read.
Meanwhile, my son informs me that in our elementary school, classes with the highest homework compliance will get coupons for ice cream shakes at a local burger joint. I think I may have moaned audibly when he told me this in the car.
On my kid-and-food blog, The Lunch Tray, I've long complained about the practice of teachers and principals handing out junk food to reward good behavior and performance. Now, one could argue that a restaurant voucher is a better reward in that some intervening parental oversight is required before a kid can eat the junk food in question. We've certainly thrown out our share of coupons for free Pizza Hut pizzas, awarded as part of a reading program in which my school participates, but I lacked that control when, for example, my daughter was handed multiple cans of Coke and full-sized bags of gummi bears by a teacher for good performance.
But why do Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut and countless other restaurant chains get into the "school reward" business in the first place? To imprint their brands upon young minds as early as possible, in hopes of forming a lifelong loyalty. It's a strategy that's proven to work since young kids lack the critical faculties to view advertising with the objectivity of adults. But why do parents need to stand for it?
And then there's the larger philosophical question, raised in my "Lunch Tray Food in the Classroom Manifesto," of why we now reward kids for behaviors -- like attendance and homework completion -- which in the past were simply expected of all students.
And even when kids do something great, like getting a good grade, aren't we devaluing the accomplishment when we commodify it? When I was a kid, my own sense of pride and my parents' praise was enough incentive for me to perform well, but now, apparently, you can cash in a report card full of A's for Krispy Kreme donuts (limit 6 per report card); eight Chick-Fil-A nuggets; a slice of Sbarro pepperoni pizza and a soda; a McDonald's Happy Meal; and many more.
Totally apart from the healthfulness (or lack thereof) of these junk food restaurant rewards, the practice of doling out treats for a child's every positive move strikes me as deeply dispiriting and ultimately counterproductive. As Chris Liebig notes with respect to the Dairy Queen coupons in his school:
As is so often the case with the district's use of material rewards, the program sends a negative, materialistic, anti-educational message: that school is so aversive that you need to be bribed to attend, and that ice cream is what every normal person really wants.