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I Love the Concept of ‘Little Treat Culture’ — But What’s It Teaching My Kids?

A few weeks ago, after a stressful and overwhelming few days, I decided to treat myself to an iced latte and a pastry before running errands. I told myself it would lift my mood … and sure enough, it did.

It may have just been the sheer factor of having time alone, which is a rarity for me as a work-from-home mom. But a few days later, on a Target run with my kids, I decided to add a new pajama set to my cart, and I felt that same little mood-lifting thrill. 

There’s something about treating yourself to a little something — a fun coffee drink, an Amazon Prime steal, a cookie after lunch — that feels luxurious and indulgent, albeit without the guilt or stress associated with actual luxury or indulgence. Because while TikTok content can certainly be a vehicle for misinformation or problematic messaging, there’s one TikTok trend I can get on board with: Little treat culture.

Little treat culture is all about treating yourself to a little something fun when you’re stressed or sad or even just inconvenienced. Think: Grabbing a cupcake after a long day at work, or buying a new lipstick while picking up a prescription. Think of it as the TikTokified (and often less expensive) version of retail therapy.

This hits differently when you’re a mom. We tend to be so consumed with doing for our kids and households, we put ourselves on the back burner. So when we do give ourselves permission to buy the $20 pajama set, or sit and drink the overpriced latte, it feels like we’re pouring into our own cups for a change.

But when we pull ourselves out of the moment, we have to do that thing moms can’t help but do: We have to wonder how our personal relationships with little treat culture will affect our kids.

It’s no secret that social media promotes consumerism. I’d be lying if I said that I, a fully grown woman, am immune to the pull of wanting more and more based on what I see online. So how is this going to affect my kids? How will they learn to distinguish between healthy indulgences and unnecessary ones? And if I, their ultimate influencer, fall under the influence myself, how will that affect them down the line?

According to Courtney Morgan, Licensed Therapist (LPCC) & Founder at Counseling Unconditionally, watching a parent enjoy little treat culture won’t necessarily harm kids.

“I do not believe that ‘little treat culture’ is significantly impactful to children,” Morgan tells SheKnows. “I believe the insignificant impacts would be positive, such as watching their parent experience joy in something small, or seeing someone online add a little fun to their typical day. [It’s] about making the mundane a little bit more exciting.”

But as always, there’s a healthy balance we need to strike. “It would be negative if a person were to cause financial stress over their need for ‘little treats’,” says Morgan.

Morgan is right: Little treat culture is subjective. What feels like an insignificant spend to one family may be a big deal to another, and social media can’t always be the blueprint. Sure, your favorite influencer may share that her life has improved since she started treating herself to Starbucks every morning, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right move for everyone.

Like the concept of self-care, which took on a really commodified flavor thanks to social media, little treat culture requires limitations — and it can’t take the place of actually taking care of ourselves. Treating myself to a new nail polish is no substitute for facing stressors head on, getting enough rest, and staying on top of my physical and mental health. Ultimately, I want my kids to see that example and apply it to their own lives. I don’t want them to think that buying a new Stanley cup will fix all their problems, because at the end of the day, it simply won’t. 

According to psychologist Ray Christner, Psy.D., my kids won’t necessarily think they can use a little treat as a replacement for true self-care just because they hear their mom say, “Ugh, I’m having a rough day, let’s go get ice cream”. That is, as long as I model balance and moderation, and keep a few things in mind.

“The ‘little treat culture’ is really interesting, and if used the right way, it can be great for both adults and kids,” Christner tells SheKnows. “Let’s start with the good stuff. Rewarding yourself can be a great motivator. In fact, there is science to show that when we treat ourselves, we get a ‘dopamine boost.’ This is associated with pleasure, so it has a positive impact on mood. For kids watching, this can be an effective way to learn about rewarding themselves when they achieve something, as they will model behaviors of others. The other piece is self-care. These little treats can show children that it’s okay to take a break and treat ourselves.”

However, it’s not all good, and we have to be mindful of the fact that little treat culture can become a crutch or make us overly reliant on those instant dopamine hits as coping strategies. In our world of social media-driven consumerism, it’s really important that we teach kids that materialism needs to have its limits.

“If the treats are always about buying stuff or immediate pleasures, it might teach kids to be more materialistic or always want instant rewards,” says Christner. “When these treats are all over social media, kids might start thinking they need to keep up. This social comparison can make them feel bad about themselves or their own lives.”

One thing that may be helpful? We can teach our kids that it’s not just the thing we acquire, but also the experience of acquiring it that feels so good. So maybe, instead of focusing just on the new toy you bought your child, you talk about how much fun you had going to the store and choosing something new together.

“I think the trick to the ‘little treats culture’ is balance,” says Christner. “It’s also important to mix in ‘treats’ that aren’t about material things — like hanging out together, making your favorite dinner, enjoying a hobby, or just relaxing.”

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