Rewarding children with junk food. We’ve all done it, well I know I have. You want your child to do or to stop doing something so you offer up a food bribe; something like ‘if you don’t clean up that mess you won’t get a treat today,’ or ‘finish your dinner and you can have dessert’ or ‘stop grizzling or you won’t get a treat.’ OK, I accept that these things generally work in the short term, but what does it say about food and does it help or hinder the development of healthy eating habits? Are we teaching our kids that junk food can can be used as leverage to get what you want, or that it is comforting or you should ignore your feelings and just eat junk to feel better? Once again, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts…
Food rewards – good or bad idea?
Whilst bribing kids with extra snacks and sugary treats may be good for our sanity and full fill our need to be gratified, what does it really say to our kids? Are we saying that these foods are really worthy of extra effort or necessary to full fill an obligation? Why can’t they simply follow through on real life consequences like finishing what’s expected before moving onto another enjoyable activity. As adults, we need to do this, ie; finish the work we need to do to get paid and then go do our own thing.
Also are we ultimately saying that treats are more valuable than real, whole foods. When was the last time you bribed or incentivised your kids with say broccoli? Do you use the same tone and level of excitement when talking about vegetables as you do a sweet treat? Food for thought!
In the case of using food bribes to finish eating a meal, I think this is disastrous. Telling children to stuff themselves in order to get a sugary dessert teaches them to overeat and then rewards overeating with junk food or sugar. This is how bad habits that carry over to adult hood (and lead to obesity or diabetes) are formed.
Lastly, surely shutting down a childs emotion by offering a treat, teaches children that food fixes their problems. Sure a stressed, tired, lonely or bored child will feel better once they have a freddo in their hot little hand (well temporarily) – but how many of these kids grow into adults that comfort eat or use an emotional upset or boredom as an excuse to hit the lolly jar rather than deal with the issue?
Also a word about instant gratification
I have a thing with children being instantly gratified and I can’t help but feel these children are heading down a dangerous road. I’ve read that children who are raised with instant gratification often struggle with the reality of adulthood becoming frustrated, perpetually disappointed and unhappy people.
Let’s face it, we live in a world where there is lots of instant gratification. Want to find a recipe?…look on-line. Want something to eat?…just open a packet. Need it heated?…throw it in the microwave. Want a meal made for you?…it can be done in the time it takes to drive the 5 meters from one window to the next.
I’m an impatient person and I confess, I love many forms of instant gratification. However, I’m willing to sacrifice it when it comes to the food I feed my family and I. I am also trying to sacrifice it when it comes to raising my kids, though sometimes sanity does get the better of me! But I know deep down that relying on quick fixes to pacify or coerce my kids is not a long term solution, nor beneficial to their long term health and mental wellbeing.
I’m also very wary of instantly gratifiying my kids when it comes to food, even healthy food. I find my kids, often when bored, or tired or just angling to catch me in a weak moment (like when I’m busy preparing a meal), moan ‘I’m hungry.’ As much as I hate to think of my kids going hungry, the reality is that this is unlikely when I know they’ve had regular, balanced meals. So I’ve changed from instantly gratifying them by dropping everything to satisfy their supposed hunger and stop them moaning; to not denying them, but delaying their gratification somewhat. If I’m making dinner, I might say, once I’ve cut up the carrot to go in the casserole, I’ll give you a piece. If they baulk at it then they aren’t too hungry after all.
What about nutrition?
I’m sure you all know my position on the oversupply of treat foods but just to say…sugar is addictive, contributes to weight gain, liver disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, polycystic ovaries, and on and on I go. Empty calories which deplete vital vitamins and minerals from tiny bodies that really need these nutrients! Harsh, but true…knowing this, surely there’s a better way?
Being told that they can indulge in foods that are bad for them as a reward for doing something good, sends a very mixed message.
Why not reward healthy eating and behaviour?
I love the use of reward charts for healthy eating or good behaviour. Personally I have found them useful over the years for encouraging postitive patterns of behavior and eating. Plus they also reinforce delayed gratification, that is, their efforts are rewarded, just not instantly. There are so many rewards beyond junk food.
My mother in law had 7 kids in 8 years and my husband came along 10 years later – yes you read right! She is an amazing, inspirational woman who I admire greatly – ok she’s slightly crackers too! Last time she came to visit, I asked her about feeding 8 children and how she satisfied them all? She told me they just ate what she served up, hungrily and gratefully. One child wasn’t a big eater, in fact he ate very little at all – just the way he was she said and subsequently, still is. Three sturdy meals a day at set times. No demands, no fussiness, no bribing.
It begs the question…why are children today SO finicky and fussy?