“If you are good you can have a cookie.” These words seem harmless enough, right? Wrong! Rewarding children with food is a common practice which can have short and long term negative health consequences. For example, if you go grocery shopping before dinner and you reward your child with a candy bar for behaving well at the store, it may lead to your child not wanting to eat much of his dinner (short term consequence). More importantly than the one missed meal, is the connection that the child makes between the food and behavior. “If I’m good, I get to eat my favorite sweet foods.” This teaches your child to eat for emotional reasons rather than his physiological hunger. Children are actually very good at regulating their appetite by listening to their natural hunger and fullness cues. However, when children are taught to eat for emotional reasons, these natural cues are overridden and it may lead to a lifetime of overeating and emotional eating.
Similarly, food should NEVER be used as a punishment. Sending your child to bed without dinner is totally unacceptable and may create a cycle of overeating. Studies show that when children and adults are not sure when they will get their next meal they are likely to overeat. Children living in food insecure households are more likely to be obese than children who are food secure. Another example of using food as a punishment, is telling a child they can only have dessert if they eat their broccoli (or other vegetable). Research shows that this practice leads to the child becoming less interested in eating the healthy food (broccoli) and the sweet food becomes even more desirable to the child. This is the exact opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. Asking a child to eat broccoli in order to get dessert, may work in the short term. However, the real goal is for the child to eat broccoli because he likes it, not because he has to in order to receive a “reward.”
I am not against rewarding children for good behavior, going to the potty, good grades, etc. I am against rewarding children (and adults) with food. For little children there are endless substitutions that are just as easy and almost as cheap as candy-stickers, crayons, temporary tattoos, bubbles, all make great non-food rewards. This is a simple substitution that you can start right now if your child is usually rewarded with food. Sometimes, an even better reward is just giving your child verbal praise or doing an activity with them. Activities such as going to the park, playing a game, or reading a book together take a bit more effort but they are worth it in the end.
What types of rewards work for your family? Do you remember being rewarded with a lollipop after getting a shot at the doctor?