How to Avoid Using Food As Reward or Punishment

Promising or withholding dessert is not an uncommon parenting technique, and while it has the likelihood to work in the immediate circumstances, it will also likely send a long-term detrimental message to your child.

First, let’s look at “bribing” children for behavior in general (giving them something for doing something).  When children are rewarded extrinsically for good behavior, they learn to expect rewards for that good behavior.  In other words, making the right choices becomes unimportant, rather the focus becomes on what do I get if I do that?  Parenting through rewards can set up your child to expect rewards for appropriate behavior rather than making choices because they are the better or more acceptable choices; the motivation shifts from becoming internal to external.  Bribing can often send the message that there is no intrinsic value to the behavior you are asking for; there’s no good reason to do it so something else must be needed.

Bribery may give you short term results, but in the long run, it weakens a child’s ability to learn to make good choices and what the value is in those choices by making your child dependent on external controls.  For example, bribing a child to eat vegetables shifts their mindset to get a sweet, thus devaluing the importance of vegetables in your child’s health and losing the opportunity to teach your child about healthy food choices.  Bribing your child to pick up her toys may result in her picking up her toys, but it also sets her up for only choosing to pick up her toys when rewarded rather than developing the habit of picking up toys because that is what is expected of her as a family community member.  Bribes fail to teach children respect and responsibility.  Long term messages are more important than quick fixes.

Bribery with food (and punishment with food) can be especially detrimental to children.  With a raging obesity epidemic in the United States, particularly amongst children, learning to make healthy food choices is extremely important for young children. Studies have shown that children who experience food rewards and punishments grow up to become adults who are more likely to need “diets” to regulate their eating behavior and have a tendency to binge eat.  Kids who receive food rewards become adults who seek food rewards and have a harder time regulating their own dietary behaviors in a healthy manner. These adults are more likely to make unhealthy eating choices when they feel stressed or that they’ve worked hard, often creating long-term dietary and weight issues that often affect self-esteem and happiness.  At this point in a child’s life, emphasis on food should be focused towards developing healthy eating patterns and making healthy food choices.  Food is better detached from all other concepts other than nourishing our bodies.

So, if we shouldn’t bribe or reward/punish with food, what can we do?  When it comes to something like making healthy food choices (such as eating more vegetables), we can lead by example. Children try to imitate the adults they grow around and trust. Genuine enthusiasm for healthy food at home and school translates into an environment that is supportive for development of good eating habits. Tell children how the vegetables will make them stronger and healthier and use specifics to those vegetables (e.g. carrots have beta carotene that helps us see better or broccoli has lots of calcium that makes our bones stronger so we can jump higher and run faster). Include children in cooking the vegetables; children who participate in making a meal are more likely to eat those foods. Explore new recipes and find a way that your child enjoys the vegetable.  Some children prefer vegetables in a sauce or mixed with other foods, some children prefer certain vegetables cooked less; helping your child find a way to like a vegetable can encourage your child to explore ways to be healthy while enjoying it.  When it comes to dessert, it’s best to keep it a surprise that doesn’t come at the end of every meal with expectation. Or give children desserts separately from meals. Also, keep desserts healthy and talk about healthy versus unhealthy desserts.

For non-food related behaviors, focus on dealing with the behavior directly.  If your child is not cleaning something up, look for reasons why.  If your child is distracted because he has chosen to move onto something else, remove the something else temporarily until the behavior is completed (e.g. “you may continue playing with this, watching this, etc. when you have put your toys away.”)  Consequences work best when they are directly related to the task at hand.

Look to see if your child may be overwhelmed with the task and offer help (e.g. “I can see there are a lot of toys here and that’s overwhelming; I will help you clean this up but we need to do it together”).  Often times, assistance works far better than consequences.  Alternatively, make piles that your child can put away (when things are spread all over the place it is more likely for your child to feel unable to complete a task).  Find ways to motivate your child through tasks that focus on responsibility and prepare them for those responsibilities by explaining to them that they will need to put something away by a certain time, etc., in advance.  Children follow through better when prepared.

Finally, give your children choices when trying to encourage behavior.  Do not change the requirement, but find ways in which your child can have some control as well.  Let your child choose which vegetable she wants for dinner tonight.  Let your child make decisions about your decision (e.g. your child may need to wear a coat but he can choose which coat, or your child must put away the toys but he can choose to do that before or after dinner).  Giving choices helps children develop self-discipline which ultimately leads to making better choices and happier life-styles.

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