As parents and caretakers, we have all had those moments where we turned to the closest sugary treat to reward our child or to ensure their best behavior. Trying to avoid a temper tantrum in the grocery aisle or at grandma’s? Grab a cookie! Looking to reward your child for their good report card? Give them a double fudge ice cream cone!
Although there are hair pulling situations where sweet treats seem like the best option, using food as a disciplinary tool is an unhealthy idea for many reasons.
In addition to praising and bribing a child with food, parents also use food to soothe a child’s emotions. If a child has been bullied at school, was not invited to a birthday party or encountered other stressful situations, mom or dad may turn to food to appease their feelings of loneliness, sadness or anger.
Linking treats with an emotion can change a child’s relationship with food. If a cookie represents: “mommy loves me,” or something to turn to when you are sad, the next time a child feels an uncomfortable emotion and their parents are unavailable to make “all better,” the child may turn to food to numb their feelings.
Unfortunately, the relationship we set up for our children with food often lasts a lifetime—and often it is the most difficult to change. Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful women in the world, often speaks of the emotional battles she has had with food due to her grandmother attempting to feed away her problems as a child.
What can a parent do?
Instead of getting food mixed up in the disciplinary game, there are many other effective tools that can be used to help praise, soothe or control a child’s behavior.
Consider the following options:
1. What children want more than anything else in this world is our attention. Instead of using food, reward a child with a special day with mom or dad, time spent reading their favorite book, or playing their favorite game.
2. Try the no fail gold star system! All you need for the gold star system is a calendar, gold star stickers and a fridge magnet to stick on your fridge for the child to see. Every day the child reaches his or her goals, (i.e. school goals, behavioral goals, etc.) they are given a gold star as a reward. Determine the rules of the gold star system and set them out prior to beginning. For example, perhaps in your house seven straight days of gold stars may equal a reward of one new book or dollar store toy! The method is up to you and teaches your child valuable lessons of motivation, persistence and determination.
3. Have your children set their own goals to teach them accountability. Depending on their age, their goals should be equated to their own individual value system. For example, a six year old may set a goal of cleaning their room daily for a reward, while a thirteen year old may set a goal of helping mom or dad with chores around the house three times per week. Post your child’s goals on the refrigerator as a friendly reminder to the entire family. For help designing a goal program for your children and the entire family, visit the Truestar Goal setting program for kids.
4. Keep non-food options such as books and toys in your purse in case you need a quick distraction for your toddler.
5. Involve your children with healthy meal time preparations and grocery shopping. It is important to honor and listen to their likes and dislikes in terms of foods. I recommend creating a personalized nutrition plan for your child and showing them all the healthy meals and snacks that are available for them to choose from!
Take home point: Using food for disciplinary purposes often backfires! Try using other non-food methods with your children and leave food for nourishment, enjoyment and optimal wellness!