What is the easiest and fastest way to get your child to do something that you want or behave in a certain way, NOW? By offering some sort of treat food, right?! We've all done it. I see it time and time again—at the grocery store, in the mall, at the playground, during a play date etc. Desperate parents pleading with their children to stop misbehaving by offering a treat food, or by withholding a treat food: "No dessert tonight if..." Or, parents offering up a food reward for future good behaviour: "If you are a good boy at Grandma's house, we'll go for icecream later." It is most certainly a quick and easy way to get your child to behave a certain way, at least for the short term. And so many well-intentioned parents do it.
But at what cost?
If you are constantly rewarding your child's good behaviour with unhealthy treat foods, or using food to bribe your child into behaving well, your child will begin to associate positive feelings with these types of foods. This often translates into emotional eating patterns later on where your child may eat to feel good or sooth himself when he is upset, anxious or frustrated. Furthermore, this could lead to disordered eating patterns, health concerns and an overall unhealthy relationship with food.
Chances are, a food bribe or reward will be offered when a child is not hungry. However, offering a yummy treat immediately triggers hunger (when you think about something delicious, you automatically start to crave it). This is why you start to salivate when you see an advertisement for a delicious food. There is actually a physiological response that happens inside of our bodies that triggers our blood sugar to drop, making us feel hungry. It's the same concept as the "See-Food Syndrome." So no matter what time of day it is, or when your child's last meal or snack was, they will start to crave the desired food that you have offered as a reward or bribe.
If you ask for good behaviour in exchange for a cookie, you will be increasing the desirability or perceived value of that food, thus putting treat foods like cookies on a pedestal. At the same time, healthier foods such as vegetables will be perceived as less valuable. If we put foods (healthy foods and not-so-healthy foods) on a more level playing field, offering less healthy foods randomly and with no attachment to a desired behaviour, these foods will not seem quite as wonderful.
Constantly offering your child foods that are high in sugar and saturated fat (which most bribing foods are) will not only displace healthier more nutrient-dense foods in their diet, but also contribute to poor dental health, overweight/obesity, and a whole host of long term health problems. Offering treat foods once in a while when your child eats an otherwise balanced diet is perfectly fine and shouldn't lead to health problems. Read more about how to manage treat foods in your house here.
I'm not a parenting expert, but I would imagine that if you are constantly offering a reward for normal "good behaviour" such as playing nicely with another child, sharing toys or treating other adults with respect, your child will begin to expect a reward for every good behaviour performed. This may become tricky when there is no reward to offer and may decrease your child's motivation to be well behaved unless there is a reward offered in return. You might also be unintentionally sending the message that you don't think your child is capable of good behaviour unless a reward is offered. As parents we want to send the message that good behaviour is normal and exptected—not just when Mom or Dad is there to reward them with a treat.
I would be lying to you if I said that I've never bribed my child with some sort of food (ahem...potty training) and sometimes it comes down to survival, which may mean offering a box of raisins or a gummy bear once in a while as a reward. Normal. Where it becomes unhealthy is when food bribing is happening consistently; daily or even weekly. What works for us (I have an almost 3 year old) is offering lots of verbal praise when good behaviour is performed. For example: "Good job for sharing your toys with Tim—you're becoming such a great sharer!" Instead of "if you share your toys with Tim, you can have a brownie when we get home." Or "you went to the potty all by yourself! You should be very proud of yourself! You're such a big boy now!" Instead of "if you go on the potty, I will give you a cookie!" I find that praise for good behaviour is just as powerful and effective as a bribe. Especially long-term. For more suggestions on how to encourage good behaviour in a healthy way, check out our resident Parenting Expert's blog here.
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