I recently took Big A to the hairdresser, and, as usual, she didn’t want to get her hair washed. The hairdresser kept pushing it until I finally said, “Maybe there’s something we could entice you with, sweety.” While I was quickly brainstorming a reward, like a book, the hairdresser quickly chimed in with, “A lollipop — you can’t have a lollipop unless you get your hair washed.”
Before I could say anything Big A moved (more like sprinted) straight into the hair washing seat. As she was getting situated she got scared and told me she didn’t want to do it. The hairdresser said in a sing-songy voice, “Well, then you won’t get a lollipop.” And then Big A checked in with me: “Mom, can I still get a lollipop?”
“Yes, sweety,” I replied. The hairdresser glared at me, with a look of disbelief, and I told her that as a dietitian I can’t use food as a reward and then apologized.
What’s the big deal?
I touched on this topic of using food as a reward in my managing sweets series but I see it happening so often that it bears repeating. The truth? If I didn’t know what I know about nutrition, food and behavior, I would probably reward Big A with food. No doubt it would work. I’m sure she would do lots of things to get the sweet treats she loves — eat broccoli, do chores, be calm at the grocery store and even get her hair washed at the kid salon.
While I think a lot of parents know that using food as a reward isn’t the best strategy — they do it because it works in the short-term. As I discuss in my Best-Kept Secret to Raising Healthy Eaters, when we are short-term focused with feeding, we are more tempted to employ feeding strategies that are counter-productive for kids’ eating down the line.
We know from research that using palatable foods as a reward makes them even more appealing to kids. And on the opposite end, using healthy food as punishment, to get the reward, makes kids less interested in the healthy food.
But the real question, and the purpose of this post, is what does this do for kids’ relationship with food in the super long run? You know, when they are adults making their own food decisions.
Kids who see food as a reward may turn into adults who seek food rewards
A 2003 study in Eating Behaviors, 122 adults were asked about their current eating habits along with their memories about food rules as kids. The adults who recall parents using food to control behavior through reward and punishment were more likely to use dietary restraint (restricting food practices such as dieting) and binge eat.
As a dietitian who has worked with adults for many years, I’ve seen how this plays out in adulthood. Many of the people struggling with eating and weight often see food as a reward for their hard work and stressful life. In fact, nights, when the busy day is finally done, seem to be the toughest. After dinner, people find themselves back at the fridge often grazing all night.
Is using food as reward or punishment during childhood the cause of this? No. While there is some research showing a link, this doesn’t prove cause and effect. But it makes you think about the association kids make with food, beyond hunger and enjoyment, and how they take this with them into their adult lives.
As parents, we help our kids develop the lens through which they see food. Will they see snacks as something to do when they watch TV or are bored or will they snack as a way to refuel between meals? Will they seek sweets as a reward for their hard work or look for other constructive ways to feel good?
The more frequently parents use food as a reward or punishment, the more likely it is their kids will grow into adults who eat in the absence of hunger. For more on this subject see 5 Times You Should Never Feed Your Kids.
Sometimes parents need a free pass
But just like anything, if we reward or punish children using food once and a while, it probably does little harm. When I was visiting some close friends up in the Bay Area awhile back, I had Big A with me. The kids were done with dinner and getting antsy while the adults wanted to hang out and talk. One of my friends mentioned getting ice cream to hold off the kids. I totally agreed and they joked that Ellyn Satter wouldn’t approve.
I told them she would totally understand that these things happen from time to time. But instead of telling Big A she had to be “good”to get her ice cream, I gave her the choice. I told her we could leave now or we could stay and talk….and get some ice cream of course. And she made the choice to stay.
So tell me, what have your experiences been with rewarding your kids with food? Did your parents do this when you were a kid?
Puhl RM, Schwartz MB. If you are good you can have a cookie: how memories of childhood food rules link to adult eating behaviors. Eating Behaviors. 2003: (4) 283-293.