Food As a Reward: What Are We Teaching?

Every single one of our meals with our families should be treated as a celebration of life. After all, the food we prepare, share and eat is what sustains and nourishes us and, in fact, keeps us alive.
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Having just gone through another Halloween with little people, I can just feel my own teeth rotting as I try to hide the gallons of candy which has infiltrated our home. Try as I may, they know it's here and they're after it! If I really wanted to, I could probably get some markedly improved behavior and chores, using sweets as a bribe. As I smuggled the first allocation of candy to the collection for our school's collection for the local food pantry, I was thinking about food as a reward for children. What are we teaching them with this tactic?

It may seem a bit over the top, but I think every single one of our meals with our families should be treated as a celebration of life. After all, the food we prepare, share and eat is what sustains and nourishes us and, in fact, keeps us alive. It's how we are physically lucky enough to be with each other every day sharing what we eat.

This raises the question: in what context should we give sweets to our children when the nutrition is lacking or non-existing? In some instances, when it's a homemade dessert, we know that there was effort, good ingredients, care and love put into the making of a pie, cake, cookie, etc. We want our children to know that a thoughtful someone worked hard to give them the experience of tasting that sweet treat. If it's a piece of candy from a trick-or-treat bag, we can taste with them and talk about flavors (salty, sweet, sour). At least make them think about what they taste as opposed to plowing through the whole bag without realizing what they are doing.

In our home, we talk a lot throughout our day about what the different foods on our plate do for us. We discuss what has the protein for strong muscles, the vitamins for nutrition and the carbohydrates for energy. My children are learning what foods will make them big and strong and what is just for pure pleasure.

In a time where juvenile obesity and diabetes are widespread epidemics, we need our children to value their health and bodies when they make decisions about what they eat. However, as adults we know full well that eating can be a really pleasurable experience. From my children's first meals, I have endeavored to have them eat what I am eating; one shared family meal. Of course, that means if someone is craving ice cream, we will share that treat together. We need to teach balance and thought.

So, back to food as a reward. There are much better direct rewards for behavior, accomplishments, etc. that make children feel better value in themselves. My favorite rearing theories, Love and Logic, advocates to make parenting fun and rewarding, instead of stressful and chaotic . The practical and straightforward philosophy that Love and Logic lives by is designed to help parents nurture responsible children by letting empathy and consequences do the teaching and allowing children to make their own choices.

If my son gets a home run in baseball, we might celebrate with ice cream. However, the whole family is going to be eating ice cream together and talking about how hard he worked in practice to make that run (I would likely have to interject with some comments on how nutritious home cooking fueled those muscles which swung the bat and made those legs run). I want him to remember the experience of his family supporting him and how good that makes him feel, rather than how sweet the treat was. I think these personal connections with our children impart more overall pride rather than letting them pick out a candy bar for a good grade. Celebration, as opposed to reward, may be a better context for us to use.

One disclaimer: I can't offer all of these thoughts without one huge confession; I am guilty of abusing the reward system with chocolate on many occasions for my kids, incorporating ice cream, cookie rewards for a workout, unpacking or getting through a difficult day. Clearly, food is personal for me, it is hard to break these habits. As Love and Logic Founder Jim Fay says, "the best reward for a kid is time with the parents".

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