Food as a Disciplinary Tool

10/09/2009 By Shawn Burns

One of Erin’s teachers took her food away today.

The way the story was related, couched in concepts like “consequences”, “following through”, and “character building” sounded sensible and considerate (although I flinch whenever I hear “character building” said in any tone other than bombastic, satirical deprecation), and at home Emily and I have been giving our own lessons in following through with consequences, teaching Erin’s little neural network how to process conditionals.

But I am not okay with what happened today. I’m getting myself a little worked up about it, in fact, and it’s only become more offensive to me the farther away from the conversation I get.

I was told, in a daily roundup as I was retrieving Erin from school, that they were working on teaching consequences. The example the teacher pulled from today was that when Erin would not stop trying to nab her neighbour’s fruit the teacher packed up her lunch and put it away. I had an uneasy reaction at the time I was told, but as it’s settled in my head I’ve realized that I’m not just uneasy, yet unsure about it: I have no respect at all for that action.

Preemptively let me note that this is not about the teacher depriving Erin of nutrition. As far as I can tell she didn’t. Erin’s lunch containers were at levels consistent with her having eaten a normal amount for her (she’s usually a light eater at lunch), so I’m not upset that she was potentially starving my daughter.

Also, I’ve taken Erin’s food away plenty of times at home, so it’s not the thought of the teacher packing up her food that bothers me. I often threaten to take her food away if she’s not eating it, if she’s not paying attention to it. Usually this has the desired result of her paying attention and eating her food, though occasionally it reveals that she is just finished eating, and so I take the plate away.

But I’ve never, as far as I can recall, taken her food away as a consequence of her doing something other than obviously being done eating, being done with her food. That is what bothers me so much about what happened today.

Using food, the promise of food, the power over food, as a way to control my daughter’s behaviour is completely inappropriate. Firstly, because it isn’t their power to have: I make Erin’s lunch, I provide enough for her to eat, and to eat well. I don’t provide her lunch as a disciplinary tool. As her teachers they are there to see that Erin gets enough to eat on their watch, and that should be their only involvement with her food.

Secondly, I think that using the power to withhold food as a method of discipline is barbaric. I don’t mean that it’s abusive (although there are plenty of examples of genuinely abusive food withholding). I mean that it’s retrograde. It’s discipline through violent authority (the one with the physical power using it to withhold food) which is at odds with so many of the common moral maxims we’ve adopted in contemporary society that I can’t even fathom it.

Thirdly, and somewhat irrationally, I think that using food as a motivator increases the likelihood of a person having problems with food later. I say that I think this irrationally because I’ve never actually seen studies saying that food issues and eating disorders are related in any way to food being used in discipline. But I’ve also never seen a study saying that they aren’t linked. It’s irrational, but it’s also probably understandable that this is a worry I have.

No small part of the level to which I’m worked up about this is that I just feel guilty that my kids aren’t at home with me, that I have to take time during the week to work instead of just being home to raise them myself. But I’m also feeling very righteous right now.

It’s probably a good thing that I won’t be seeing the teachers until the middle of next week. I need to calm down about this a little before I speak to them.