When Sweet Rewards Reap Bad Habits

Offering children treats as rewards or concessions may be setting them up for imbalanced food behaviors.

Just let me say from the start that I’m as guilty as every other parent out there when it comes to rewarding my kids’ good behavior with treats. Or, more accurately, allowing them the indulgence of dessert when they have finally finished a meal that has taken (them) for-ev-er to eat, has been replete with (my) exhaustive pleading and filled with (my) unveiled annoyance right down to the last broccoli floret.

By the end of the meal I’m often ready to send them down to Baskin-Robbins with twenty bucks, just to be rid of them, but we settle for a half cup of vanilla ice cream at home.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. We’re very careful about the sugar load in our house. It’s parceled out carefully, and my team are really very good eaters with wide-ranging tastes, admirable appetites and a comparatively low pickiness quotient.

But I do see where the “promise” of the sweet treat can have its downside. We have compromised on the “clean your plate” standard just to keep things moving. There is the occasional request for a treat that comes out of the blue, unassociated with any activity, and the sporadic expectation of reward for nothing earned. We field the disappointment pretty well, but I frequently observe many families who give in all too easily, which can make an already slippery slope even more treacherous.

When you use food as a reward – or, as I often observe – as a bribe or concession, you begin setting behavior patterns in children that are hard to break. Any parent who has “given in” to their child once too often (and that might only mean once) has already shown the chink in their armor. And kids know exactly where to throw the spear.

Notice that reward/bribe/concession foods are never a tossed salad, a piece of watermelon or zucchini sticks. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the offering is a sugary, fatty treat of little or no nutritional value.

For growing kids, an excess of these nutritionally naked foods can lead to unwanted weight gain, a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, lots of cavities, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The Centers for Disease Control puts one-third of all children ages 2 to 19 in the overweight or obese category. The bulk of that weight is from an overabundance of sweet things in their diet.

Poor quality foods, especially sweets, reduce a child’s desire for more nutritious foods. How many parents have been frustrated by a child who won’t eat dinner but never make the connection that the box of Skittles three hours earlier might be the cause? Start establishing healthier habits by sticking to your guns and offering nutritious options – or nothing.

Oftentimes there no real hunger behind a request for treats, just desire. If the offering of apple slices or rice cakes is consistent, kids know what to expect may surprise you with adjusting to the new patterns.

Make sure kids understand just how much sugary stuff they have eaten in a given day. If you’ve already had chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast and a Popsicle after lunch, let them know they’ve had their quota and they are welcome to have a piece of fruit. Often times, you then have to stop talking (especially stop negotiating). Kids will wear you down, so end your half of the discussion before they do. And don’t let your desire to get them out of your hair drive your decision to give in. The result will be better for both of you.

When you reward kids with sweets, you send a very clear message that these foods are more valuable than nutritious foods. Recalibrating your thinking so that you can send the reverse message can be hard, but talking with your kids about how healthy foods affect their growing bodies and how unhealthy foods can work against them is a huge step in helping them develop a healthy relationship with what they eat.

It’s not necessary to demonize the sugary stuff. Just make sure they understand its place in the overall nutritional scheme. Having your kids help plan a balanced meal can be enormously helpful in letting them see just how much nutritious food they need to offset the effects of non-nutritious ones.

Also, helping them recognize when they are full, in which case a treat can be a cause of discomfort instead of pleasure, helps them understand their body’s needs. Helping them decipher if boredom or anxiety is the cause of their craving helps them tune in to the emotion of eating and look for other avenues to address those feelings.

And don’t ignore the model you present to your kids with your own eating habits. If your children see you mindlessly eating less than optimum foods whenever the mood strikes, they’ll take their cue from you. Work to set the best example, and you’ll end up making healthier choices as well.


Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at mary@betterplate.com


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