My Daughter Asks for Water, Her Teacher Hands Her a Coke

Yes, really.

As you know, I’m no fan of handing out of candy for academic performance or good behavior, but since my children’s elementary school changed principals a few years ago, the incidence of candy rewards in the classroom has dropped off considerably.

Now my daughter is in middle school and she recently rotated through a class with a teacher (if any of my Houston peeps know of whom I speak, please don’t disclose here) well known for handing out sugary treats.  When I heard this news I cringed a little, but I assumed we were talking about relatively small amounts of candy to which I could turn a blind eye.

Um, not so much.

Over the last few weeks, good academic performance has been rewarded with full size bags of gummi bears (66* grams of sugar) and 12 oz cans of Coke (39 grams of sugar).  Every class, every week.  High-performing kids could (and did) receive both a bag of gummis and a Coke in a single class.

On the last day of the rotation, my daughter went up to this teacher’s desk for permission to go to the water fountain for a drink.  Without asking her if she wanted it, the teacher turned to his mini-fridge and handed her a can of Coke.  Her words to me later that day:  “I like Coke, but he’s made me sick of it.  I didn’t even want it!”

And here’s the kicker:  yesterday my daughter moved on to the next teacher in the foreign language rotation.  This teacher’s reward for high performance?  Inexpensive bracelets and other trinkets from the country in question, which my daughter pronounced “cool.”

I’m guessing it took this new teacher maybe five more seconds of thought to come up with that idea, instead of lazily sinking to the lowest common denominator:  sugary garbage.

If any of you have a worse classroom reward story, I’d really love to hear it.


[*Ed Update:  Thanks to a catch by reader Linda, on 4/28 I changed the grams of sugar in the gummi bears to 66 grams, from 22.  I hadn’t noticed that there are three servings in the 5 oz. bag.]


Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 3,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Bettina Elias Siegel


    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      It totally is! I’m sending him an email today – promised my daughter I’d wait until she was out of the rotation to send the email.

      • Mara says

        That is so not allowed. They aren’t even allowed to sell soda or candy in snack shack after school. I don’t think we ever had this teacher

  1. Nancy says

    When my eldest daughter was in middle school, she came home one day, after school, very excited. She had won a fitness contest in gym class by having the fastest time when running around the perimeter of the school. Her reward? A candy bar.

    That drove me to ensure that our school’s wellness policy said that children’s cannot be rewarded with food or drink. However, the school administration does not enforce that policy so kids continue to be rewarded with junk food. Another maddening but common practice in our high school is the end-of-quarter junk food party. Teachers instruct the kids to bring in their favorite junk food so they all can share. The school administration turns a blind eye. And this is in a school district where parents have actively advocated for a healthy food policy since 2001!

  2. says

    Yes! I agree 100%. It is very frustrating as a parent to have children handed unhealthy candy and sodas for good performance.

    Last year a few of us in our community got together and donated 250# of home raised beef jerky and beef snack sticks so that the children were at least given a good protein source instead of candy.

    I, like you, would like to see all food removed from the classroom (compulsive snacking and “food treats” teach bad eating habits), but the “system” is sometimes very hard to change. The beef jerky was a compromise with the principal—

    Glad that your daughter is seeing past the “coke”. My middle school daughter has a teacher that rewards her by allowing her to bring her Kindle to school to read her book during “down time” in class after she has performed well on a test or a written paper. She loves to read and it works really well. Much better than candy!


  3. says

    While this is very disturbing to me, it also begs the bigger question “why do kids need a reward in the first place?” Anyone who has studied brain development knows that once you add an external reward, it takes the pleasure out of the process completely. The famous educational speaker, Alfie Kohn says “if you want to make sure that you child absolutely hates to read, reward him for reading”. We all know that when we do something because we love to do it, it gives us great pleasure. Shouldn’t our teachers be instilling the love of learning and not plastic trinkets and candy?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      As I wrote my post this morning, I knew someone was going to say this and I wholeheartedly agree! Whatever happened to learning for learning’s sake, the pleasure of accomplishment? But I can only fight so many battles…

    • says

      I agree, too! Sometimes it seems like America is trying as hard as it can to send kids the message that learning is a chore and that no one would ever choose to do it for its own sake.

    • says

      Hear, hear… material rewards actually undermine intrinsic motivation. The key is to highlight the intrinsic rewards in any activity, and to stop reinforcing the idea that everything has to be immediately ‘fun’ or ‘rewarding’ to be worth doing. (As in, “did you have fun today?” versus asking our kids what they learned, what they felt, whom they helped, etc.)

    • Uly says

      Indeed. If you ARE going to give a reward, at least it should be something relevant and logical – get 100% on the pretest, say, and you don’t have to do homework for that unit because you’ve proven you understand it. Finish all the classwork early and you can have a break until the bell rings, because there’s nothing else scheduled. That sort of thing could help teachers wean off compulsively serving up candy and plastic junk.

  4. Timmi says

    Wow, I can only think of one time where I was rewarded with food. I was in 8th grade and I have to say I could be mouthy at times, I got into trouble many times for being mouthy, so my teacher made a bet with me if I could keep quiet for one class I could get a soda of my choice. I won and got a sprite. I was happy about my reward and that was the only time I can remember being rewarded with food. Otherwise it was things like privileges, like extra computer time to play games.

  5. says

    Wow, Bettina – that’s crazy! My kids aren’t in middle school yet so we haven’t quite gotten to that kind of situation, but now I am bracing myself for what’s ahead.
    I did think of one positive spin on this though: He’s turned her off from Coke! Is it possible this was some sort of reverse-psychology thing? ; )

  6. Gayle says

    My son is ADHD and his resource room teacher has a HUGE jar full of individually wrapped candies that they get to pick from for having a good day. Mind you that I have taken all dyes out of his diet to reduce problems, all the candy in there is dyed. So he has a good day at school, and since he has this candy on the way home, we get to have problems at night. He is almost 8 and I keep pointing out how he feels better when he doesn’t have this stuff.

  7. Dale Davidson says

    Amazing…just amazing. Hard to believe in this political charged food climate someone would be so blatant. They only add fuel to the fervor’s fire.

  8. Claire says

    Wow! That’s crazy!
    Right now, at my daughter’s school the first graders are in the process of learning their addition tables. As “reward” for passing each level 0s, 1s, 2s, etc the child is awarded an item to make an icecream sundae. Passing the 0s in the allotted minute, earns a bowl; passing 1s, earns a spoon; passing 3s, earns vanilla icecream. Then it gets pretty disturbing. The other items to earn are chocolate syrup, banana, sprinkles, Oreos, chocolate chips, whipped cream and cherries. Because of a district policy, nuts are not a topping offered. I don’t know how long the school has done this reward, but I told my daughter I’m not comfortable with the idea of her sitting in class eating a sundae with all that sugar. She doesn’t eat that much sugar at home. I want her to do well and pass the required tests, but I would prefer they award the kids with something less sugary or a non-food item.

  9. says

    so I was all set to respond, but everything I was going to say was covered. I do have one thing to add….it it is policy then it is policy…there is no excuse for not following policy and that is the stand I would take. I believe it is against the NSLP regulations, but since it is not being sold, there may be a loophole. If it is in the wellness policy, as it should be where no food items for rewards, then they need to follow the policy and that is that…go to the school board if need be,as I have had to do too many times to count. Policies are written for reasons, if schools are not going to follow them, then why do students need to…

  10. momof3 says

    I have 3 kids under 8 in a Houston suburb school and preschool-we fight the candy battle every day-between day care handing out suckers and candy for “being good” to classroom snacks and parties full of juice boxes and junk food. Even whats served to these young kids in the lunch room blows my mind.

  11. Katie says

    My daughters self proclaimed Wellness aware 2nd grade teacher keeps giving the whole class treats when she has to have a sub. They have had ice cream sandwiches, popsicles and more. She does also give candy rewards, as well as, trinkets. I have contacted her multiple times about my willingness to provide non food rewards and she has stated she has it covered and she is very wellness aware. This is so frustrating because if she was “wellness” aware she would not reward them with food because they were good for a sub. Thanks for all your great posts.

  12. says

    I give out homework passes. They are hard to earn, sometimes kids get points towards a HWK pass but they love it. Birthday gift is a pencil and Hwk pass. My kids can use them whenever they want. They are never abused and I never give out food.

  13. says

    I don’t recall my French or my Latin teachers rewarding me for my performance (it was more merde than tres bien), other than to say a kind word. Since when has using a kind word been passed by for enough of a reward? I think since Halloween has become a full-blown holiday for adults and children alike, and pretty much since someone first created the takeaway goody bag for a birthday party (I for one am a proponent of the office-supply filled pinata for festive occasions). The trinkets bother me just as much as the candy. I have a friend who took on her school over a candy filled treasure chest (supplied by parent volunteers, mind you) in Kindergarten, and won. No small victory there.

  14. lindtfree says

    Your daughter’s teacher obviously had NO idea who her mother was, or she would never have offered her Coke in “l’eau” of a trip to the water fountain! If a teacher tried to give me Coke instead of water at that age, I might have gone ballistic as I have always disliked carbonated beverages, especially colas.

    Whatever happened to stickers (usually stars) on “A” tests and homework assignments? When I was in elementary school, these were usually the only rewards we received. Classroom candy was limited to holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day, and birthday cupcakes (as I have mentioned before) though not forbidden, were rare indeed.

    Classroom treats as rewards are problematic in terms of both physical and mental health. The physical detriments are obvious; the behavioral detriments (in neurotypical children) may not be apparent until later: aside from turning honor students into treat-expecting brats, how long before “everyone gets a certificate for participation in an extracurricular activity” turns into “everyone gets a treat for taking a test?” A good grade should be prize enough alone; if parents want to reward students with food, wait until report-card day!

  15. Kristin says

    Makes it difficult on those kids who can’t have it, like mine, who has T1 Diabetes. Why does the world have to revolve around sugar?

  16. Kate says

    As a teacher myself, I want to know what teacher even has the disposable income to spend on such treats. My husband is also a teacher and if we are going to buy food, it will not be for our students but for our own children. If my students do well, they get a high five, a compliment, or some attention.

    • Susan says

      In my case, it’s usually by budgeting very VERY carefully. Recently, during testing week, our students (who had previously had compulsory breakfast) were told they could bring a box of honey buns and/or Capri Suns. Few did, so the counselor bought them out of pocket with the misunderstood promise that she would be reimbursed. That situation turned ugly and on the second day of testing, my students had NOTHING. So, as I teach in a Title I school, many took all day to test with only lunch in their bellies…so nothing until noon. Wednesday and Thursday I subsidized out of my pocket. Had I known that I would have to do that (not have to but I refuse to watch a student be malnourished on a day of standardized testing), I could have prepared better: fresh fruit, homebaked healthy goody, etc. As it was, I ended up with fruit cups (juice-packed), an oatmeal cookie, a chocolate chip cookie, and a Sun per student (14 in my testing group). Had a parent complained at that point (if a parent did, it would be one of those that neglected to send their child to school with a belly of breakfast but has no problem sending them with $2+ for concession stand garbage), I would simply inform them that I was done bringing extras for their or any other child.

      Also, as a parent, I try to instill healthful eating with my son. I also have taught him how to say “no” to unhealthy treats. If he doesn’t learn how to say no to tempting unhealthy treats, then how can I expect him to say no to other bad things, like pack-mentality bullying or drugs. If a child is not strong enough to say no to a cuppycake, I hate to see what happens when actual cocaine is offered.

  17. Diana van Ek says

    I think my son has that same teacher. (“Gummy bears” was the hint). My son has not talked about it as being a regular thing. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with it as a reward once in awhile in middle/high school (ace major unit test, etc). But to not let kids have water?? I will ask my son this evening for more info.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Diana: My daughter told me that after he gave her the Coke instead of water, other kids asked for one and he declined to pass out more (which is weird given how freely he seems to distribute it). So I’m certainly not saying he never lets kids go to the water fountain, but he definitely denied my daughter the chance to get a drink that day, and gave her Coke instead.

    • Kristin says

      Seriously? You have no problem with that? Do you realize just how much straight-up sugar that is at one time? And if a child’s tastebuds are ok with having that much sugar at one time, that means they have done it in the past, not just occasionally. There are several reasons why children and adults should never grow accustomed to that much sugar, one of which is the onset of insulin-resistant diabetes. You never know how pre-disposed your son is to this condition so I would think you’d want to error on the side of caution. I’m not anti-sugar, mind you, but I like to be reasonable. THAT is not reasonable (60 carbs!). At least if those carbs came with a little fat and protein they would be metabolized more slowly, but those babies hit the bloodstream fast causing a spike in insulin production. Without going into it more…let’s just say this is not good. In any case, it is a really bad example for an adult mentor to be displaying. Teachers should model good choices becasue that is the way children learn.

      • Diana van Ek says

        Seriously! My son is 13, not 5. And what I said was I have no problem with an occasional Coke. I am guessing you don’t have teenagers.

        • says

          Diana – I drank Coke almost exclusively as a child, especially when we were not at home. This was because my parents (especially my father) felt that the “consistency of product” (meaning: “less likely to cause diarrhea”) was more important than nutrition. And, I got plenty of the stuff at school, too (even though it wasn’t as a reward.)

          These days: I am beyond “morbidly obese”. I am diabetic (and have been for almost 20 years), severely mobility impaired, and have a host of other medical “issues”. I have to be very careful with what I eat, as I can no longer tolerate many common foods (they mess up my body chemistry to an unbelievable extent.)

          I am also, finally, beginning to understand just how addictive some of these foodstuffs are – especially the combination of HFCS, caffeine, and carbonation that are part and parcel, not only of Coke, but of many other soft drinks. Drinking even one (which I do sometimes, when no alternative is available) will affect me for days.

          So, if we can stop pushing this stuff off on the next generation? Yeah, I am for that.


  18. Kristin says

    Oh, I don’t see the part about just having the occasional coke. Maybe you meant to say that. I have a problem with the combination of coke and gummy bears at any age. You’ll have to forgive me — my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in November and it has been a complete roller coaster for us. I think a lot of people brush off talk of diabetes thinking it could never happen to them but it has been amazing to me how most of the time, when I tell someone that my daughter has diabetes, that person knows someone else who also has one of the forms of the disease. I never knew how wide-spread it was (and it can happen at any age). And I am getting sick of all the treats at school that my daughter has to watch other kids eat. She’s only 5 and it is very hard on her.

    • Lenée says

      I believe Diane states her opinion about an “occasional coke” with the statement, “Honestly, I don’t have a problem with it as a reward once in awhile in middle/high school…..”

      • says

        Actually, in her comment it seems like she is referring to the gummy bears as an occasional treat, not the coke (she never mentions coke in her comment).
        I don’t think coke should ever be offered to children (even at 13, they’re still children) unless the parents have given specific consent to that. It’s not just the sugar, it’s also full of caffeine.
        And with regards to the gummy bears: why a whole full size bag? There are mini-bags, you could hand out with one small serving of gummy bears.
        All that aside, I don’t think good behavior should be rewarded with food or drink at all. It doesn’t set a good example. These are children we are talking about here, not dogs!!!!

  19. linda says

    There has to be mor ethan 22grams of sugar in those big bags of gummy bears. It is probably 22grams per serving. Maybe four or five servings a bag.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Linda: I didn’t have the bag anymore, so I searched the sizes Haribo offers and my best guess was that it was the five oz bag, which I believe is 22 grams. (Truthfully, the bag looked a lot bigger than 5 oz when my daughter brought it home, but they didn’t seem to have a size that corresponded to my recollection of it.)

  20. linda says

    In the link posted it says the bag is three servings so 66 grams! Add that to the coke and holy sugar overload. That is so outrageous. This made me remember something from my childhood. Used to go to Sunday school at a Baptist church. On the church bus in the morning they handed out donuts from a big black trash bag. Massive amounts of donuts! Then there were numerous candy handouts as prizes throughout the morning. Big full size candy bars for finding the bible verse named and standin up to read it first. You could win that game over and over and go home with several candy bars. Then after church we got snowcones before getting on the bus.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      OMG, Linda, you’re right! I’m fixing the post now. Unbelievable. As is your Sunday school story, btw!

  21. says

    Maybe I am wrong, but don’t pediatiricians say no food for rewards based on the relationship that kids will then have with a food item…so if pediatricians are telling parents not to do this, then why would the school be doing it..maybe we should get the pediatricians to do assemblies to re-educate the parents and teachers….this way for those teachers (who I applaud) who want to do away with this stuff) they will be backed up by a medical professional, and therefore maybe will not have the backlash typically associated with these types of difficult changes

  22. Lisa says

    Wow seriously? They hand out treats for doing well at school? I have never heard of that happening.maybe in the uk it is not allowed…if they are lucky the younger kids get a star sticker in their work book for good work.

    I would hate for my kids to be rewarded for good work, weren’t they meant to do their best regardless? But coke and sweets? Yuk I would hit the roof if that happened, it boggles the mind as to the levels of unintelligence that teacher must have if they have to resort to food treats to maintain good work in their classroom!

  23. Diana van Ek says

    So there really are two issues here…the teacher offering Coke to a student who requested water to quench her thirst and the idea of rewarding kids for performance. On the first issue, I completely agree that was inappropriate. If this indeed the same teacher that my son has, this teacher does stock mini waters in his fridge, so who knows what he was thinking that day. The second issue giving kids rewards for performance is a much more broad discussion…do you break it down to food rewards vs. trinket rewards? Privileges vs. grades only? This debate could go on forever. Teachers use all kinds of external rewards for kids…if they use them too frequently they lose effectiveness.

    Personally, I pack both my kids lunches everyday. I do know what they are eating most of the time. My son is 13, in middle school, not getting the bi-weekly cupcake birthday party treats my 8 year old daughter is. Much to my son’s disappointment when I talked to him about this matter in the language class rotation…he said his class does not get those treats regularly, and he could not recall the last time the teacher handed them out (of course, he wishes it was more often!) Would Ihave a problem with it if he were getting candy and Coke weekly or bi-weekly…yes.

  24. Adina says

    Nobody mentioned the caffeine in cola–surely that is even more inappropriate for a child than sugar.

  25. Homeschooled Student says

    I find this disturbing. While I am still in school, and homeschooled at that; I am picky and I hate junk food! Being rewarded for good scores would make me want to get HORRIBLE scores!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *