There is a first grader in our classroom who is struggling a bit with learning how to read. The other day I noticed that when we played a board game during indoor recess, this child seemed motivated by collecting the chips that accompanied the game - red, yellow, blue, and green plastic counters. I wondered whether using those same chips would encourage more perseverance in sounding out words during reading times. And lo, it worked!
I came home from work happy at a small but real success, and relayed to my teen how chips had worked to encourage reading stamina.
"Wait," he said. "Potato chips? THAT IS AWESOME."
We all have our reinforcers.
I myself am struggling to lose weight. I've noticed that when I finish my work day my first instinct has been to go to Starbucks to treat myself. But because I am trying to move beyond food and drink as reward, I have been making a list of other, less tangible rewards I can offer myself - a phone conversation with an old friend, a walk, getting a few chores done. I don't have to tell you that this kind of reframing is not easy, but I think it may be especially challenging for a person who as a child was offered treat after treat after treat.
When your parent has an eating disorder, as mine did, she is likely thinking about food obsessively. She may deny herself the food but bestow it (often in excess) on her children. My favorite foods were always in the refrigerator. One might have found three or four varieties of cookies - all gourmet - and as many kinds of ice cream in my childhood home. Of course my friends loved it. I took it for granted and did not eat at all healthfully, which did not impact my health even slightly as I was tiny, a gymnast who practiced a good twelve hours per week.
No longer am I a gymnast. No longer am I skinny.
Old habits are the hardest to break, aren't they? Especially ones formed in childhood, I think. My mother did not offer love easily or often, but she did offer food, and food is a form of love, yes? Even if it is not homemade food, and even if the providing has more to do with mental illness than with mental health.
I remember particularly these Valentine's Day cookies that came from a Manhattan gourmet food shop called Word of Mouth. They were heart-shaped Linzer Tortes with raspberry filling and lemon curd icing, and yes, they were divine. Every February my mother ordered my brother and me our own boxes of twenty-four of these cookies. Twenty-four huge cookies for each of us!
I am not a child and have not been one for longer than the entirety of my childhood. Colorful counters are not rewarding to me, if they ever were. Word of Mouth closed many years ago. The reward I must seek, I think, is the anticipation of a long life in which I remain healthy and mentally sharp. Yet how hard is it to work toward something that is a good twenty to thirty years in my future, should all go well before then?
Starbucks and I, we've had to break up. Still, other people have worked through far greater struggles than mine. I believe that I can do this, and surely belief is an important prerequisite of success.
Onward. Food may be love, but love, it does not have to be food.
The learning, it never stops.