School Should Know Better Than to Punish Kids With Food

Jeanne Sager

School lunchBeing a recovering bulimic is as much a curse as a blessing when you're a parent. You know better than anyone how hard it can be for kids to deal with food. And then again, you know better than anyone how hard it can be for parents to deal with food.

And now, in a school in Pennsylvania, elementary school kids are being punished for a variety of behavior issues with a simple fix. They're being denied a hot lunch. So if a kid, say, fails to clean up their messy desk, they're told they can only eat a cold sandwich rather than the tacos or pizza that their classmates are indulging in.

Of all the colossally bad ideas that I hear out of schools, this one takes the cake -- no pun intended. It's practically begging for children to walk out with eating disorders.

Using food to punish kids doesn't make them straighten up and fly right. It presents food as a weapon. It paves the way for a lifetime of disordered eating. For anorexia. Bulimia. Binge eating.

Don't take it from me simply because I'm an armchair expert, a parent who has spent hours poring through material on eating disorders in order to fight my unnatural instincts toward food as I parent my child. Take it from countless eating disorder experts who warn that a child who has had a food withheld from them can associate that food with something they need to scarf down when they have the chance, creating an unhealthy binge disorder. That children who cease seeing food as sustenance and something used to punish can develop anorexia because they internalize that they don't "deserve" certain foods, that they have to punish themselves. Because it starts with hot lunch, sure, but it moves on in the altered brain of an eating disorder victim to other foods.

Outside of the eating disordered world, people tend to think of those of us on the inside as responsible for our own fate. It's not a culture that garners a lot of sympathy. Think of how people look at the overweight, telling them to "just stop eating." The same goes for the ultra thin. "Just start eating," they say.

They forget that there's a reason we're "big" or "skinny" to begin with, that there's very often a trigger-point. And while they wouldn't tell a child abuse victim to buck up and just stop thinking about it, that's the attitude toward eating disorders. It's why so many well-meaning parents are guilty of using food as a weapon in their homes. They don't see it as a problem.

It's not child abuse to substitute a promised treat with something not as nice, they think, as long as the child is still being fed. But the way to keep our kids healthy is to ensure they think of food as something to fill the stomach rather than a measure of their own worth.

In fact, The U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits withholding meals as a punishment for any child enrolled in a school participating in the school meal programs for this very reason. Because food isn't a weapon. It's one of the building blocks of life.

What do you think of this? Have you ever used food as a punishment in your home?


Image via juliejordanscott/Flickr

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