It’s a common impulse for parents to use food as a reward or as a punishment. Many may give their children a “special” treat for behaving well or accomplishing something. At the same time, they may also refuse to give their children dessert or withhold those special treats for certain negative behaviors or failures.
It’s not just the parents, though. It’s the general culture. Food is often used to distract or bribe children in order to make interaction with them easier. Teachers may reward their pupils with candy when they finish their work. Barbers may have lollipops handy for crying little customers.
It may all seem harmless, but there can be detrimental effects in the long term. What are the possible consequences of rewarding or punishing with food?
Why You Shouldn’t Reward with Food
What can possibly go wrong if you use food to reward children? Here are the reasons why you should reconsider this option.
1.You’ll undermine any healthy eating habits you’re trying to inculcate in your children.
Giving your children junk food, even occasionally, as a reward, interferes with your lessons on choosing healthy food and regulating eating. When junk food is involved, children will find it pretty hard not to overeat.
2.You’ll confuse them with the mixed message you’re sending.
Giving a typically off-limit food as a reward or “special” treat will confound your children. Junk food is prohibited because it’s bad for them, so why should they get something that is bad for them as a reward?
3.You’ll introduce them to the habit of emotional eating.
According to nutrition experts, by rewarding with food, you unwittingly associate special treats with good feelings. If you reward with junk food, it becomes their happy food.
As they grow older, they might start using it to cope with unpleasant emotions. Many people are guilty of emotional eating, but it’s especially alarming when it becomes the primary way of dealing with negative feelings.
4.You’ll open avenues leading to cavities and weight gain.
Rewarded with junk food, your children will find it more appealing. If they develop a preference for this kind of food, various health issues may arise, not the least of which are tooth decay and weight gain.
Take note that junk food does not belong to the recommended food groups for children.
Why You Shouldn’t Punish with Food
It might be easier to recognize how punishing with food could be detrimental, but do you know in what ways? Here are some of the possible unpleasant outcomes of this practice.
1.You’ll encourage bad eating habits.
If you punish them by making them clean their plates or the opposite, by sending them away from the table before they finish their dinner, they might develop bad habits such as eating when they’re not hungry or starving themselves to punish you.
2.You’ll create food aversions.
If you punish them by making them eat healthy foods like vegetables, this might lead to your kids developing distaste for them. Also, there’s the confusing message again. Why are they being punished with something that is good for them?
3.You’ll mess up their innate ability to read their bodies’ hunger cues.
If you punish them by forcing them to eat more despite claims of fullness or by restricting their eating when they want more, it will cause your children to be less attuned to their hunger cues.
When you override their expression of hunger or fullness, they will begin disregarding their cues since it would just be futile to try and heed them.
4.You’ll breed unhealthy eating behaviors.
If you punish by depriving them of special treats, they might be inclined to have cravings, to start sneaking food, or to binge eat when they get the chance.
If you do allow junk food, don’t punish by withholding it. If you don’t allow junk food, then make sure that they understand that it’s not being withheld because of punishment. In any case, withholding healthy food to punish isn’t any better.
If you must reward your children, you can offer options other than food, such as experiences, toys or art supplies, and even just stickers. This way, you don’t unwittingly mess up your efforts to get them to have a good relationship with food.
At any rate, it’s better to train your children not to rely on external rewards for motivation. At the end of the day, intrinsic motivation and other qualities that lead to success and fulfillment are the most effective incentives in the long-term.