Food As A Child’s Reward And The Unintended Consequences

“If you finish all your dinner you can have a cookie” you emphatically tell your children as they push the broccoli around the plate.

Every parent is familiar with these kinds of deals made with children on a daily basis to receive a desirable result.

Whether this is done daily, or when it really counts, using food to reward our children’s behavior can produce long-lasting consequences that aren’t worth the immediate results.

Using food as a reward is common. Why?

Because it works!

And can you blame parents? It is how most of us were raised.

The smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies reminds us of a simpler time, where love abounded and responsibilities were nil.

These nostalgic feelings are passed on in love to our children by way of baked goods when they are being good little boys and girls.

We are just trying to invoke in them the same sense of joy associated with the warm deliciousness that we had.

Katie Bingham-Smith writing for Scary Mommy explains how she was roped into thinking that being given baked goods was a way you showed your children love:

My mom let me have two [cookies], then I snuck another three. It felt like love and, since then, I’ve used baking as therapy and a way to de-stress and express myself. But more than that, I’ve used baking — and feeding people — as a way to show my love.”

Unfortunately, when we try to do something special for our children, we tend to include some sugary, salty, or processed treat.

Maybe it is programming by companies that provide these treats, or maybe it’s transferring our own comforts onto our children, but somewhere down the line we decided that eating unhealthy was something that was “earned”, a reward for all we accomplished or endured.

Mothers know this all too well at the end of a tough day with the kids.

After spending three hours fighting with our son to clean his room, and being the target for every piece of food our toddler didn’t want, we console ourselves with some dark chocolate and red wine..or worse.

The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) warns against the damaging effects of using unhealthy food as a reward for our children and withholding food as a punishment.

URMC reports:

Using food as a reward or as a punishment, however, can undermine the healthy eating habits that you’re trying to teach your children. Giving sweets, chips, or soda as a reward often leads to children overeating foods that are high in sugar, fat, and empty calories. Worse, it interferes with kids’ natural ability to regulate their eating. It also encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry to reward themselves.”

When we serve nutritious food, we tell our children that it is “good” and that it makes their bodies strong and healthy.

Then we turn around and give them junk food when we are having a special time, or as a reward, associating all the good feelings they should have with healthy food with food that offers little to no nutritional value.

Or, as URMC points out, “They may also start associating unhealthy foods with certain moods—when you feel good about yourself, for instance, it’s OK to reach for a sweet.”

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There are several alternatives to food that can be used as an effective reward for children, such as:

  • An outing they enjoy
  • Stickers
  • Time together doing their favorite activity
  • Listening to their favorite song
  • A delayed bedtime
  • Playtime with a friend

A study by Dr. Claire Farrow from Aston University and her colleagues at Loughborough and Birmingham universities, reported by Science Daily, showed that parents who used controlling feeding practices are teaching their children to rely on food to deal with emotions.

No parent wants their child to feel dependent on food for their happiness, or as a measure that they are doing well in life.

Creating a healthy relationship with food now with your children is essential in giving them the tools to maintain a beneficial relationship with their food later in life.

Keep the dinner table strictly for eating and enjoying one another’s company, avoiding demands to clear the plate, as you hold the prospect of “better” food to come over their heads.

Talk about how the meal is going to give their bodies what it needs to keep them smiling, jumping, cuddling, and playing.

Please let us know in the comments section what you use as a reward other than food, and how that has shaped your child’s relationship with food.