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Why shouldn’t parents use food as a reward or punishment?

Do you use food as a form of reward or punishment for your child? While this may work in the short-term, it can have negative consequences.

As parents, we sometimes go to extreme lengths to persuade our children to behave better, finish their homework, or tidy their rooms. In some cases, we may find ourselves using food as a form of reward or punishment. Using food as a reward or punishment can contradict the healthy eating habits you’re attempting to instill in your children. Here’s why:

The cons of reward foods

Generally, reward foods do not include healthy foods. They’re frequently cookies, sweets, chocolate, crisps, or other calorie-free snacks. Too much sugar and too many low-nutrient meals can cause health concerns for everyone, but especially developing children, such as weight gain, cavities, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of children aged two to 19 are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for adult health problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

“Using food as a reward gives children food power, which interferes with their natural capacity to be intuitive eaters – eating only because they’re hungry and stopping when they’re full,” says Anna Lutz, a registered dietitian and eating disorder and paediatric nutrition specialist. “When we use food as a reward, we are telling children that the food is so good that they must work hard to earn it. In response, a child may put more value on junk food than wholesome food. Worse, it motivates children to eat even when they aren’t hungry as a form of self-reward.”

The cons of using food as punishment

On the other hand, some parents may withhold special treats as a form of punishment. For example, a parent may refuse to offer dessert if their child hasn’t eaten all the food on their plate. The practice of forcing children to “clean their plates” can encourage them to develop bad eating habits, such as eating when they’re not hungry. In a society of huge portion sizes, the last thing that we want to do is teach our children to ignore their body’s signals that they are full.

It can also lead to a distaste for those nutritious foods they’re being forced to eat. When children are forced to eat a particular vegetable they don’t enjoy, for example, the experience may teach the child that all veggies are terrible and may limit their desire to try them in the future.

Alternative rewards and punishments

Parents can offer a number of other rewards, not related to food, to reinforce good behaviour, such as:

  • New art supplies or colouring books
  • Stickers (for a star chart)
  • Special bath toy
  • Watching their favourite movie together as a family
  • Extra reading time before bed
  • Playdate with a friend
  • Going to the park
  • Spending a morning making crafts with mom or dad

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