“Finish your dinner or no dessert”, most of us have said this or have had this said to us at one time or another. How about, “if you’re good, we’ll go out for ice cream later”? These common ways of encouraging good behaviour in children often seem simple and harmless, but what message are children really learning from this punishment and reward system? Children are constantly learning, growing, and adapting to the world around them. Both consciously and subconsciously, they are taking on new messages, expectations, and behavioural patterns. So often, we do not realise the extent to which we as adults can truly influence a child. Food-based reward systems are just one example of ways we can mean well, but may actually be sending unintentional negative messages about food and our bodies. Let us explain further...
Dietitians’ Insight into the Risk of Food-Based Rewards for Children
What is a food-based reward system?
Food-based reward systems are methods in which we attempt to influence a child's behaviour either by threatening to take away food or by offering food as a reward. Often this is done with discretionary food choices such as chips, chocolates, ice cream, lollies, biscuits, soft drinks, and take away foods. Food-based systems can present themselves in many forms. Examples of using food to control behaviour include:
“If you finish all your vegetables, you can have sweets for afternoon tea.”
“If you don’t sit still and behave you won't get any dessert.”
“If you stop being silly, I’ll get you a lollipop.”
"If you go to the potty, you have a chocolate."
“If we pack up our toys now, you get something sweet to eat.”
“I know you’re sad, how about some chocolate to make you feel better?”
What are the risks of a food-based reward system?
Often parents and caregivers feel that by giving treats, they are bringing happiness to their child through the pleasure of eating something tasty that they wouldn't normally get to eat. Though there are many potential negative outcomes of these types of behaviour control tactics.
Our relationship with food and our bodies, whether healthy or unhealthy, is often established in our childhood.
A key issue with these food-based systems of reward and punishment is that they encourage us to view foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. These ‘bad’ labelled foods are the discretionary foods often used as rewards or as things that are taken away in response to bad behaviour. Using them in this way promotes the belief that these foods need to be earned, that they are foods to desire, and foods to be extra excited about. Putting these foods on a pedestal encourages the idea that they are these extraordinary things we only get when we truly earn them, and simultaneously promotes the idea that other ‘regular’ food is boring.
Instead, we want to encourage children to know that all foods play an important role in our well-being. We want children to learn about why foods with lots of nutrients are so important, being that they help us to grow, play, have energy, feel happy, and provide our bodies with all the things we need to stay healthy or feel better when we are sick.
Then there are other foods that do not have as many nutrients, so we do not eat these as often, but they taste good and it’s fine to enjoy them sometimes.
Taking away the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods helps remove the idea that any foods are extra special and prevents children from feeling like they need to earn food. Instead, let us show that all foods play an important role in our lives and help children understand why some foods make up large parts of our diet and other foods are enjoyed on occasion we don’t eat as often.
Long Term Impact
Often children have a good ability to identify when they are hungry and when they are full. The more we encourage children to eat based on mood and behaviours, the more we encourage children to ignore their natural appetite cues. When these natural instincts of hunger and fullness are repeatedly overridden, we can begin to lose these instincts and eat in the absence of hunger or when we are simply bored, tired, sad, or stressed.
An unhealthy relationship with food can follow children into their teen years, into adulthood and our journey as we grow old. Research has shown that these sorts of food reward systems can over time lead to such anxiety and guilt around food, that children can go on to develop disordered eating behaviours or eating disorders.
So, what do we do instead of rewarding children with food?
Children still need to learn right from wrong, so what are the alternative strategies? Instead of using food as a tool for reward and punishment, consider other things that can be used to encourage good behaviour in children. We know that sometimes simply explaining to children why they need to behave is not enough. Some other ways of encouraging good behaviour and delivering consequences for bad behaviour can include:
‘You have been naughty, no TV tonight.’
‘If you unload the dishwasher, you can play outside.’
‘If you don’t do your chores, no playdate this weekend.’
‘If you don’t do your homework, we won’t go to the park tomorrow.’
"If you go to the potty, you have a sticker."
These systems encourage good behaviours and provide consequences for poor behaviour without influencing a child's natural instincts or fostering unhealthy relationship with themselves and their own body.
Fostering good relationships with food whilst promoting good behaviour
Avoid labelling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Instead focus on all the important things nutritious foods do for our bodies to explain why we need more of some foods and less of others.
Encourage children to develop other skills to regulate their emotions instead of offering food in exchange for calming down, such as deep breathing, talking through their feelings, relaxing activities like colouring, or getting out extra energy by running or jumping.
Take away privileges such as television, gaming consoles, and playing with friends, to teach children right from wrong, rather than restricting access to food.
Recognise that the strategies you use now to regulate a child's behaviours and emotions can become the same strategies they use on themselves as they get older. Try to encourage life-long, healthy, coping skills.
Remember it is never too late to promote healthy relationships with food. If you have used any of these food reward strategies in the past, you can still find alternative approaches and play an active role in promoting healthy relationships with food.
If you have concerns about your child's behaviour, talk to your paediatrician about what reasoning could be behind this and what strategies can be used. If you are concerned about your child's relationship with food one of our OSCAR Care Group paediatric Dietitians can assist in providing personalised information and strategies to assist you and your child. Our Team of Dietitians are here to help. Click here to make an appointment for your child.
For further help within a childcare settings, we have a range of services for you. We offer nutrition training for educators and families, we have free webinars, and our team can assist with your menus and any food safety concerns. And don't forget to subscribe to our website for the latest news. We’re your secret ingredient to nurture and protect growing bodies.