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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Food Reward

Sorry I have been MIA lately, but I am back after reading a blog, which brought the question to mind, "Should we reward our children with food?" I started looking around and here are some thoughts I came up with. A bit of fair warning: I became more passionate about this topic as I began to write it. My agenda here is not to offend anyone, but to bring up real issues related to this topic.

First of all, rewarding children with food can happen in many different ways. One way is saying, "If you finish your plate, you can have desert." Another way children are rewarded with food is the all too often party-birthday party, Valentine's party, Halloween party, etc., especially when they are happening once a month or more at school. Children have also been rewarded for good behavior with food in instances such as, "If you are good while we are at the grocery store, you can get a candy bar." Other children can be rewarded with eating out for dinner on Friday night because they have finished their chores for the week. Many children are rewarded with eating out or treats because they made good grades on their report card. There are many ways we reward children with food, even some so simple we don't even realize that's what we are doing.

"So what?" you might say?

First, let's start with nutrition. That's an easy one. Obviously feeding your child carrots and celery aren't going to do the trick! Usually, we are feeding our children candy and ice cream for rewards, right? And I'm sure we've all heard of the obesity epidemic among youth lately. Well, these behaviors are not helping improve those statistics any. Sugary foods filled with empty calories can lead to weight gain, and depending on how much the child is being rewarded with food, it could be rapid weight gain. Also, the risk for cavities increases when we feed our children sugary foods. (You can look into this yourself. The biology lesson is beyond the scope of this discussion.) These are only 2 ways that rewarding children with food affect nutrition, but there are many more.

Next, let's talk about poor eating habits. When we give children food as a reward, we are not giving them food because they are hungry. We have given them food just because they have done something good. Therefore, we have given them permission to eat, even though they are not hungry. Usually this also sends the message that the treat we have just given them is better or more important than the lunch or dinner they will be eating next because they will no longer need as much nutritional food since they have just eaten empty calories with their treat. Therefore, they have not finished their lunch or dinner and have not had the proper nutrition for the day.

Furthermore, we may be teaching our children emotional eating habits. If the child feels good because they have been rewarded, but the reward is linked to a food, then the child will link feeling good to eating the food. Therefore, they may begin to avoid negative feelings by eating in order to feel better. Children may also begin to eat when they are bored because they do not like this feeling or they do not know how to cope with being bored, but instead they have learned to eat in order to not feel bored or uncomofortable. And back to the poor eating habits, they may not have had the opportunity to learn what if feels like to be hungry to know when to eat. Although emotional eating may feel good to the person at the time, it usually ends in feelings of guilt, which may lead to more destructive behaviors.

Lastly, and maybe more importantly for some of you, you are setting yourself up for failure. Think about it: If you are rewarding a child with ice cream after he eats all his peas, is that really going to help you to get him to eat his peas the next time? No! He's still going to want ice cream the next time he eats his peas! Not to mention you are sending him mixed messages. You are saying, "Eat these healthy peas, then I will give you a sugary treat." What? I'm even confused!

So what can you do instead?

One simple thing you can do is praise your child. Children love to hear us dote on them! Verbal praise goes a long way. Children love to feel accomplished, loved, and feel like they are doing things right. Food just gets in the way of that. If you want to take it the other direction and take a healthy stance, tell them, "Great job! Let's go to the park and play." Other ways you can reward your child is allowing them to have their friends come over to play, involve your child in planning an outing they would enjoy, let them pick out a bedtime story, or play a board game with them. Be creative in your efforts to find other rewards for children, instead of food.

I realize it's hard in the moment not to offer that treat because it is so easy, but if you can think of what it might actually be doing to your child nutrtionally and emotionally, you might think again before those words come out of your mouth.

I would love to hear your comments on this topic. Do you agree or disagree? What other methods do you use to reward your children?