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Rethinking Food as a Reward for Your Preschooler

by Makinya Ward on September 2, 2016
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The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say a hefty 8.4 percent of American children two to five years old are obese. Preventing future issues like asthma, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and social stigma is largely in the hands of parents, who can guide their children’s eating habits.

shutterstock_436523044.jpgReward Becomes Punishment

The experts at WebMD remind us that using food to reward success, good behavior, or cooperation does not work in the long term. Instead, food rewards:

  • Provide empty calories — Most reward foods are sugary, with minimal nutritional value.
  • Develop emotional eating habits — Children get an unhealthy connection between food and feeling good about themselves.
  • Falsely weight sweets — Food rewards make sweets more desirable at the expense of better foods like fruits and vegetables.
  • Create poor eating habits — Giving food rewards when a child is not hungry, adding snack times as rewards, and equating reward foods with high value are all damaging.
  • Sabotage good parenting — Extrinsic rewards like cupcakes teach children that the good behavior is not the goal, the food itself is.

We saddle our children with junk food when we turn food into a Pavlovian experiment.

Childish Adults

Children raised to see food as a reward become adults with childish eating habits, say the experts at RaisingHealthyEaters.com. Consider your own eating habits and which ones may stem from your childhood of food as a reward or punishment:

  • Binge eating in the evening
  • Eating while watching television
  • Eating from boredom
  • Snacking between meals
  • Eating while sad, depressed, lonely, or in pain

The concepts of “comfort food,” food as social justice (“Children are starving in Africa.”) and food withheld as a punishment (“You go to bed without your dinner.”) originate in our childhoods and should not be passed on to our own children.

Better Choices

Rather than giving your preschooler cavity-carving candy, the University of Rochester Medical Center suggests these alternatives:

  • Reward proper behavior with trips to the library, park, zoo or playground
  • Shop together for new art supplies, a coloring book, or plush toy
  • Play a favorite board game with the whole family
  • Give preschool supplies like pencils, stickers or play dough
  • Listen and dance together to your child’s favorite music
  • Earn extra reading time before bed
  • Invite a friend for a play date or sleepover

How do you strike a healthy balance between food and rewards? At Kids Konnect we like to share ideas. Please comment below.

Topics: Food and Nutrition