There is no denying that candy makes kids happy. Just about every parent, me included, knows that we can use this to get our kids to do what we want, or not do what we don’t want. That power makes it very tempting to use sweets as a reward for good behavior. Love of sweet tastes has even been noted in studies involving unborn babies. The reason is based on evolution; to help ensure their survival, infants are born with a strong preference for the sweetness of breast milk.
How many times have you been tempted to say: “If you just finish the [insert healthy, unpalatable vegetable here], you can eat the [insert treat here]”? If you have managed to avoid using sweets as a reward, congratulations! The rest of us need to remind ourselves just what is at stake when we consider using that handful of candy as a bribe.
You already know that using sweets to get a child to finish a healthy dinner is quite a nutritional irony. When used too frequently, this tactic can backfire in other ways. Here are a few of the possible consequences:
• Increased aversion to healthy foods. Look at this from your child’s point of view: If she has to be bribed to eat something, then that thing must not be good. Making a big deal out of eating the broccoli and then offering ice cream as compensation for eating her vegetables may very well encourage a stronger dislike for broccoli.
• Turning the tables on you. Children are very perceptive of how much you have riding on that one spoonful of spinach. Once your child figures out how invested you are in what she eats, and knows she can get “paid” for eating certain foods, she can become very skilled at turning that to her advantage. She may well figure out how to work the system to get more of what she wants and less of what you want to give her.
• Elevating the status of forbidden foods. When you use sweets to reward your child for eating her dinner instead of helping her develop an appreciation of healthy foods, you end up shifting focus to the treat and away from the rest of the meal, thus making the treat the main
attraction of mealtime.
• Inappropriate membership in the “clean plate club.” A full child may continue to eat in order to get to the reward at the end, thus eating more than she normally would. If done often enough, she may learn to ignore her own internal signals and just clean the plate to get the reward. This can encourage an undesirable habit of eating everything that is presented, which is a known contributing factor towards obesity.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to sweet rewards that can help you encourage your child without promoting bad mealtime habits. The options can range from praise and attention to stickers and books and other things your child loves. The effectiveness of any reward depends on how much the child values it. If you find that you really do need to use a food treat, try to use it for infrequent situations (e.g. fidget-free visits to the hairdresser or more peaceful visits to the doctor).
If your child tells you that she is finished eating, take her seriously. You can persuade her, but never force her to eat more. The body lets us know when we are hungry or full; allow your child to follow these cues and learn to trust them. Olivia Lee
Got a question? Singaporean Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.