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Lets say no header

Stephen, Stay-at-home dad, Antrim

We have two daughters, Cassie (6) and Amy (3). We grow some of our own vegetables so our main meals are fairly healthy. But summer in a seaside town like ours means being surrounded by ice cream and sweets. I find myself using them as rewards to get them to do their chores. My goal is to stop using sugary snacks as a motivator.

Day 1

Week 1, Monday

Well, we decided to have one last hurrah of ice creams on Sunday ready to start afresh on the first day of term.

Monday morning came. Our eldest daughter was squeaking with delight at returning to school, the youngest was less keen. In an effort to coax her to the car I fooled her with a kids multi-vitamin tablet (low sugar) which passed as a sweet. This kept both them and my wife happy, since she believes they’ll withstand the onslaught of winter bugs. Score 1 for Daddy! We all visited Nanna and Pappa after school.  Before you could say “Please don’t bring out the homemade iced fairy cakes with sprinkles, Nanna”, the girls were tucking in. Lesson of the day: get the whole family on board with the healthy eating plan.

bottle of mulitvitamins

Day 2


Great weather after school made it easy to distract them with football games in the garden. No afternoon treats meant they wolfed down their dinner.

Day 3


Supermarket shop. This is usually a nightmare that goes something like this:

  1. Girls hold my hand and behave like angels 
  2. I turn my back. 
  3. They break for the sweetie aisle 
  4. A huge telling off 
  5. Grumpy Daddy, tearful little girls 
  6. I feel guilty and they end up with chocolate all round their mouths on the way home.

This time I sat down with Cassie and struck a deal. If she behaved, she’d get some pocket money to spend on whatever she chose in Vincent’s (he’s our fruit and veg seller in the town). With only a little prompting, Cassie stuck to her promise and was just delighted at getting a brown paper bag, counting out her 6 mandarin oranges and paying her money. She clutched her “treat” all the way home. I am genuinely amazed. 

girl choosing mandarins at the market

Day 4


Amy saw her mum scoffing a chocolate cookie mid-morning and whinged until she got one too. See Monday’s lesson of the day!

girl scoffing a chocolate cake!

Day 5


A mum on one of the “Let’s say no” videos reminded us that her little boy still thinks raisins are a treat.  Our youngest does too and her older sister - who hates being left out - soon agreed.
Day 6


Cassie is off to a birthday party.  Obviously she isn’t going to resist chicken nuggets, crisps, jammie dodgers and birthday cake.  Saturday is now nominated sweet treat day.

Day 7


I love Sundays because the girls go riding at a local stables with their mum. They love it and wouldn’t miss it for the world. Good behaviour abounds on Sundays. No one pesters for sweeties because they daren’t risk getting banned from riding.

girl on a horse

Comment from John Sharry, Psychologist and parenting expert

Stephen, It strikes me that you make great progress this week. Most impressive to me is how you struck a deal with Cassie about the mandarins as an alternative healthy treat. Often parents don’t realise that once we sit down and explain the issues to them, children will often accept the goal of alternative healthy treats/ rewards in lieu of unhealthy ones. Also, I am struck at how the presence of a consequence at the weekend helped encourage good behaviour – ‘No one pesters for sweeties because they daren’t risk getting banned from riding’. The secret is to try and have some reward at the end of the each day that you can make dependent on good behaviour . (e.g. if you pester me again about sweets, you will lose some of your TV time).

There is more information on using consequences effectively in my book Positive Parenting and on my website.


Day 8

Week 2, Monday

Homework time. Cassie is most unhappy at being told to come in off her swing and do some writing. Normally, this is when the mini marshmallows come and out and she rides the sugar rush through each painfully constructed sentence and sum. Today, we sit down and discuss a deal. If she does her homework without fuss, she gets 20 minutes extra quiet playtime before story and bed. This is a BIG DEAL, since it means staying up later than her little sister. Nicci, my wife, and I agreed to make her bedtime later now anyway – but Cassie doesn’t have to know this. (I know it’s a bit sneaky but…)

Day 9


The weather is awesome. The sun is shining and after school we walk along the beach. Cassie’s school mates have the same idea and they are all holding ice creams. We buckle. Vanilla cones all round.

girls with ice cream cones

Day 10


Amy is the size of nothing with an appetite like a horse. “Crisps, Daddy”, she wails. We spot some beautiful apples on a neighbour’s tree and are invited to help ourselves. They are so ripe, red and juicy that even I am excited about picking them. We sit on the grass and munch. Delicious. Amy has always refused to eat apples before today. I’m really hoping that picking them off the supermarket shelves will have the same effect.

Day 11


Just read that a little Innocent Fruit Smoothie has the equivalent of 4 lumps of sugar in it. It’s fruit juice, so it’s healthy, but it’s made me think about them differently. They are a dessert or a treat rather than a drink. Our girls always have them on picnics, but I’m switching to water bottles from now on. Staying up later as a reward for homework done worked again by the way.

Day 12


Mummy is away and Amy has whinged all day. In the newsagents I grab 3 packs of cola bottles and I am ready to give in when suddenly I see it - Pony magazine. Amy’s eyes light up. All afternoon she is glued to it, even showing her teddies pictures of the foals. Perfect. Well, sort of. Now she is nagging me for the pony pajamas, pony lunchbag and matching pony water bottle.

dad with pony magazine

Day 13


Another birthday party. Crisps, sausages, love hearts, chocolate cake and party bags stuffed full of more sweeties! The party bags are spirited away, but I still see grumpy, exhausted little girls by mid-afternoon. We have a healthy supper, go for a walk and pile into bed early.

Day 14


More good weather. We spend the morning at the beach building sandcastles and poking through rock pools.

happy girls in the car ready for the beach

Riding straight after picnic lunch (with water instead of smoothies) means there is no time for even thinking about snacks.  So, in my quest to find motivators other than cola bottles and ice creams, this week I have discovered 3 things: 

  1. Staying up later than your little sister is the sweetest reward when you are 6 years old, even better than marshmallows
  2. Trips to the park/beach/a sport they love keeps them active and stops them thinking about treats
  3. Pony magazine saved my bacon!

Comment from John Sharry, Psychologist and parenting expert

Dear Stephen

Well done you have made lots of progress this week. Discovering lots of alternative rewards that are healthy and part of the rhythm and routine of the day makes a big difference. I do not think it is at all sneaky to use the later bedtime/extra time with parents as a reward for homework. In using rewards the key is to use things you are happy to give the children anyway, but rather than giving them automatically you make them dependent on good behaviour (homework, being cooperative etc.).

You are right to notice how smoothies and juices though made from healthy elements are rich in sugar and should only be used occasionally – this is often a surprise to lots of families. You can either switch to just water or milk, or also get into a habit of offering watered down juice occasionally.

Day 15

Week 3, Monday

Anna takes some reminding, but eventually homework is done without a mini marshmallow in sight. OK, she got some extra TV. But the staying up later than her sister thing is still working.


Day 16


It’s off to the hairdresser with their Mum. Both arrive home with swishy new do’s and purple lollies sticking out of their mouths. How? Why? Their Mum is about to be sent to the naughty step. Turns out the hairdresser gave them lollies, which they were ripping out of the wrapper before Mum had even seen. I order what’s left of the lollies into the bin. Big sister does it immediately. The little one follows, lip wobbling, tears welling. Anna was smart enough to crunch the whole lolly into her mouth before she threw the stick. She opens her mouth and shows it to Mima who promptly throws herself on the floor wailing. Major meltdown. Next time, for the sake of half a lolly, I’ll just let it go…


Day 17


Supermarket shop. Both girls promise to behave in exchange for their own pound coins to spend on fruit, stickers or Pony magazine. We are off to a bad start as the layout has changed with special offers (mainly biscuits) in the entrance. As the shop progresses, they look mystified and delighted as I ask them to load party packs of crisps and popcorn into the trolley alongside the usual stuff like broccoli and yoghurt. They are so excited; they forget to do anything but behave.


Day 18


Happy Birthday to Anna! About 20 little friends came over after school for a party. And yes, they ate birthday cake and cheesy wotsits and popcorn, but we also had lots of sandwiches, bowls of strawberries, grapes and blueberries at the table. Jugs of water, milk and sugar free juice. All of it was eaten (but you can guess what went first). Anna and friends had a brilliant time making little Jumping Clay hermit crabs and playing tag around the garden. Best of all, they took away little Jumping Clay party bags - not a sweetie or plastic toy to be seen.



Day 19


I think everyone was still in happy mode from yesterday’s party. No bribes required. Odd. But really nice. Mima snacked on the last of the fresh pea pods from the garden.



Day 20


Another birthday party. Just cake and juice this time. That’s ok. It is the usual treat day. Well, at least now they accept that they have to hand over the sweetie-laden party bags on departure.


Day 21


Great behaviour all morning. But it has been a big week and after riding they are tired, grouchy and making bad decisions. I’m feeling the same and give in to their whining for chocolate chip cookies after dinner. In fact, I have a couple too!


After 3 weeks I am feeling much more confident and relaxed about what we eat, drink and snack on. It has taken a bit of work and lots of imagination to get here, but it hasn’t been as tough as I’d thought. The girls do eat the odd bit of rubbish (a biscuit, a bit of cake) but it really is only a couple of items a couple of times a week. All the really naughty habits I’d created using sweeties as daily bribes has pretty much gone. And if we do have to strike a deal, they happily accept things we would give them sometimes anyway – like a bit of extra TV or a trip to the playground. We’ve got caught out the odd time (the hairdresser/lolly incident comes to mind) but who’s perfect?!


Comment from John Sharry, Psychologist and parenting expert

Dear Stephen,

Well done, I think you have made some great changes. I agree with you that the lolly at the hairdressers is one you often have to let go. (It is disappointing that the hairdresser gives out treats to children without asking their parents’ permission first. Alternatively it would be better if the hairdresser had other rewards such as stickers for children). As you learnt, it was probably not worth making a big issue about the lolly and asking for it back. The key with all food treats is not to aim to eliminate them altogether but to reduce the frequency you give them and the amount you give. Once you get a routine of healthy eating going during the week, the odd break in the routine is no problem at all (especially during birthday parties!). I’m also impressed at your shift from using food rewards to other ones (such as extra TV or a trip to the park) that you are happy to give them anyway (but now you insist on good co-operative behavior first) – this is great discipline in action.

Well done again,

John Sharry


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