My school district recently made a bold move. They banned birthday cupcakes and other treats in schools as part of a district-wide wellness initiative. Despite the fact that they’re going to catch some flak (they already have) and despite the fact that I’ll personally miss those 200 calorie bundles of sticky awesomeness, I support the decision. Birthday cupcakes are disruptive, unhealthy and sometimes even dangerous. Let me explain.
Here’s what happens on a typical birthday. The special child’s parent swings by the office sometime in the morning to drop off a large plastic box containing 30 store-bought cupcakes. The office staff – with plenty of other things to do – sends an email or leaves a voice message for the child’s teacher, who then sends the child down to office to pick up the cupcakes. Unless the message doesn’t get through; in which case the office has to resort to the intercom. The cupcakes then live in the classroom until the teacher finds time to have the “party.” In my room I hold off as long as possible. I typically have the birthday kid stay inside when the rest of the class goes out to recess at 2:50 so they can put a cupcake and a napkin on everyone’s desk. When recess is over and everyone comes back inside, I take my guitar off the wall and we sing the standard. Then we eat cupcakes. After five minutes we throw away the wrappers, wear the rings that are usually embedded in the frosting (Seahawk helmets or Disney princesses) and get on with what’s left of our day.
Now obviously that’s not a huge distraction. But that’s a typical birthday. I’ve had misguided parents drop off a standard round cake with candles (seriously?) and no plates. I’ve had parents bring in jugs of juice and no cups. I had one dad drop off 24 cupcakes for a class of 29, five of whom received a ballpoint pen stolen from the supply room. And then there are the parents whose child is too special for mere cupcakes. They bring cupcakes and balloons. Or cupcakes, juice and balloons. Or sometimes an entire pizza lunch for the whole class, complete with cookies, drinks and favor bags. And if you think these parties are distracting for a classroom, imagine what it’s like in the office; five hundred students means there’s an average of 1.5 birthdays each day – more on Mondays and Fridays to account for the kids who were thoughtless enough to have a weekend birthday this year – and you can see how much time is consumed by birthday logistics.
Besides the distraction, birthday treats are usually horribly unhealthy. I challenge you to find something worse for a child’s body than the average store-bought cupcake. And frankly, there are a lot of kids in school right now who need to take nutrition a lot more seriously. When I first started teaching, 30 years ago, I would typically have one or two chunky students per class. This year nearly half my class appeared to be overweight. No, we’re not going to turn the corner on childhood obesity by banning birthday cupcakes, but trust me, we need to start somewhere.
And that’s not even taking into account the kids with allergies or diabetes. I usually have a handful of students each year who are allergic to anything from wheat to milk, chocolate, dairy products, or nuts. The data is readily available, but it’s time-consuming for me to figure out who can’t eat these particular cupcakes, and it’s heart-breaking for the allergic kid to be told that he’s going to have to miss out on the treats.
That said, part of me will always miss those birthday cupcakes. But that part of me is – quite frankly – a little too large as it is. It’s time to ban the cupcakes and move on.