Updated: Mar 10, 2021
Leaders motivate the actions of others. Parenting isn’t much different. In both roles we want to give those looking to us for guidance the tools to make effective decisions when we are not present. My daughter's experience in kindergarten this year has led me to consider how parents and leaders can develop good habits in others.
The time leading up to my oldest daughter starting kindergarten was exciting for the whole family. She was eager to make new friends, and I was looking forward to her learning in a formal school setting. While focusing on all of the good that can come from the experience, I naively didn’t consider some of the downsides. The amount of food with added sugar she has access to is one of those downsides.
When I get home from work and ask my daughter about her day, she leads with the “treats” she ate at school. These aren’t treats we pack in her lunch box or treats she swaps with other kids in the cafeteria. They are snacks from a well intentioned school district full of dedicated teachers who are living in a society who has not yet fully realized that sugar can wreak havoc on our bodies.
Keeping in mind that children should be limited to less than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day, let’s take a look at my daughter’s sugar consumption during school from one week last month:
Monday: A bowl of ice cream with chocolate syrup and sprinkles to celebrate the birthday of a classmate (6 teaspoons)
Tuesday: A package of gummies fruit snacks at snack time (3 teaspoons)
Wednesday: An ice cream sandwich from the cafeteria at lunch (4 teaspoons)
Thursday: Two chocolate chip cookies during snack time (2.5 teaspoons)
Friday: Two packs of smarties from the teacher on “Fun Friday” (3 teaspoons)
As you can see, my daughter is getting most of her added sugar at school.
We’ve begun using James Clear’s laws of behavior change to help our daughter stay below the recommended limit. In Atomic Habits, Clear argues a habit can be divided into four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. Here’s our approach:
Cue: Our first strategy is to make foods with high quantities of added sugar invisible. We don’t have much control over what happens at school, but we try to reduce exposure to added sugar at home. We understand that self-control is difficult enough for us, so we try to limit tempting situations for her.
Craving: We want to make turning down sugar an attractive option. The best way we know how to do this is to role model. I have reduced my sugar intake considerably in the last year and knowing that I am modeling good behavior has been a strong motivator for me. Next, we give her control, but we remind her that she has other choices rather than going with the crowd. We educate her on the negative health effects of sugar just like we talk about the risks of smoking, riding a bike without a helmet, and boating without a life jacket.
Response: We make eating “growing foods” easy by putting them within her reach. Once we learned that our daughter enjoyed eating frozen broccoli as a snack, we put a small bag of it in the freezer that she could access herself. Since she was three, she has pushed a stool to the counter to get a bowl, opened the freezer, and helped herself to a bowl of frozen broccoli for an afternoon snack. Making it easy helped make it a habit.
Reward: It’s not easy to make sugary treats unsatisfying, but we can help make it satisfying to avoid them. For example, when she chooses not to have a sugary snack at school, we can offer a low-sugar reward when she gets home. Our aim is to reinforce the positive behavior; we don’t punish when she chooses to eat sugar. To develop intrinsic motivation, we say, “You must be proud of yourself for making a good choice.”
In the short time we’ve been applying these laws of behavior change, I’ve learned trying to shape the habits of another human being is especially challenging when the undesired behavior is the cultural norm. I’ve learned it’s best to give others control and help them learn how to make better decisions. Like most things, the short term process is difficult, but I’m betting on the long-term outcome being positive. In the meantime, I’m celebrating small wins like this week when my daughter came home with an uneaten Rice Krispies Treat in her backpack (2 teaspoons of added sugar).