How often do you give your child a treat to end the tears?
You know what I'm talking about:
- Toddler goes in the stroller.
- Toddler immediately starts crying.
- Parent produces a muffin out of thin air.
- Toddler stops crying.
- Success, but at what cost?
I, myself, am guilty of using food to stop incessant crying. Until I realized that I had turned my child into an automatic, reflex-driven, car-snacker. And then I had to undo that habit.
Who hasn't resorted to a little behavioral bribe? If you are good you can have a cookie!
Food—or more specifically the lovely cookie—has the power to produce miraculous results: kids who wait patiently through phone calls, lines at the bank and even grocery shopping trips that take forever.
You can have an ice cream if you play quietly by yourself for another 15 minutes.
Don’t do it. It might just affect your children’s lifelong eating habits.
A 2003 Yale University study found that adults who remember their parents using food to control their behavior have higher rates of binge eating. They are also more likely to be excessively concerned about their weight, suffer from weight fluctuations, and other problems such as chronic dieting. Yikes.
Food works to reinforce behavior in the short term, but it also communicates mixed messages to children about the role that food should play in their lives.
So much parental energy goes into encouraging healthy eating, but then we reward our kids for behaving well by giving them…brownies!
These peas are good for you. These cookies are just plain good.
It makes sense that when parents reward children with dessert, these same children grow into adults who reward themselves with dessert. But it’s not just dessert consumption that is affected. A 2001 study found people whose families used food as a reward for success and good behavior were more likely to be bulimic than people whose families did not use these tactics.
1) The key to teaching kids to eat right is to keep your eyes on the long term prize.
Nutrition puts enormous pressure on parents to get the right foods into kids. And that pressure makes parents do crazy things. If you’ve ever found yourself wrestling under the table to get one more slurp of applesauce into your little superstar then you know what I mean.
One study of college students founds that 72% of the students who had been forced to eat food as a child said they still wouldn’t eat that food today.
And a substantial body of research shows that pressuring kids to eat more makes them eat less. Give up your membership in the Clean Your Plate Club. Instead, pay attention to the long-term lessons your kids are learning.
2) You can carefully use rewards to encourage healthy eating, but avoid using food to encourage behaving.
In an earlier post I talked about the power of rewards so I wouldn’t blame you if right about now you were thinking that I am the contradiction queen. I don't think I am.
Giving stars as a reward for eating behavior—trying new foods, for instance, or eating vegetables before the rest of the meal—is completely different than using food as a reward for desirable behavior. Read Star Power.
I'm not going to dispute that rewarding your kids with foods they really like will get their attention, but pulling out the big guns (and let’s be honest, nobody bribes good behavior with broccoli) overpowers kids. Really big rewards produce really big results because of the amount of pressure they apply. What's a poor kid to do?
But while using food coercively works, it won't position your kids to develop a positive relationship with food. Research confirms this.
3) Look for non-food rewards that work.
Here are a few ideas to get you started. Allow your kids to:
- Plan a special outing.
- Pick games for family game night.
- Choose a movie for the family to watch.
- Select a sport for everyone to play together.
- Stay up a few minutes past bedtime.
- Allow a sleepover.
- Have a few friends over for a special “party.”
- Choose a small toy from a special toychest.
- Play an extra computer game.
I’ve often said that you shouldn’t sacrifice your kids’ long term eating habits for the sake of the immediate meal.
Here I’m saying, don’t sacrifice your kids’ long term eating habits to stave off the immediate meltdown. Instead, arm yourself with an arsenal of non-food rewards and set your kids up for a life time of healthy eating.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
Batsell, R. W., Jr., A. S. Brown, M. Ansfield, E., and G. Y. Paschall. 2002. “"You Will Eat All of That!": a Retrospective Analysis of Forced Consumption Episodes.” Appetite 38: 211-19.
Puhl, R. M. and M. B. Schwartz. 2003. “If You Are Good You Can Have a Cookie: How Memories of Childhood Food Rules Link to Adult Eating Behaviors.” Eating Behaviors 4: 283-93.