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.
Reward 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.
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.
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.