Why Using Food as a Reward or Punishment is NOT a Good Idea
Using food as a reward or punishment is not a good idea and this post will tell you why.
Many of us parents end up using food as a reward or punishment when we can’t get our kids to eat. This post is a quick overview of the many evidence-based reasons why doing so is a bad, bad idea. Yes, even rewards!
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Using food as a reward or punishments can teach your child unhealthy eating habits.
I apologise for the rather jarring title and no, I’m not at all accusing you of deliberately setting out to teach your child something unhealthy. Most parents have the best interest of their children at heart and would give them the sun, the moon and the stars if they could.
In a hurry?
That said, it is certainly possible for us to make choices based on incorrect or incomplete information and that is what we’re talking about here.
If your child’s relationship with food is something you worry about and you’re an exhausted parent who’s sick of bribing your child just to get them to eat what you want when you want them to, then you’ll probably find this post very useful.
It starts from imagining the possibility that what you’ve been told to do (by your parents, your friends, other parents, the media etc) – rewarding and praising – simply do not work and could, in the long run, damage your child’s relationship with food.
If you’re looking for simple ways to help your picky eater eat healthy or develop a healthy relationship with food, head on over to our post, How To Teach A Child To Eat Healthy: Simple Ways To Help Picky Eating Toddlers.
Rewards and praise
I know for a fact that this is going to make many parents rise up in protest (#sorrynotsorry).
What’s wrong with rewards and praise you ask?
Based on our own personal experience, rewarding and praising someone for a job well done make people feel good.
Surely, we want our children to know what that feels like?
The dark side of reward and praise
When you are rewarded and praised properly and specifically, you do feel quite chuffed, don’t you?
But, admit it, there’s a massive difference between your boss saying in passing, “Good job!” and him calling you into the office to say, “I asked you to compile all problems in the office. I didn’t expect you to create a write-up, put it all in an Excel sheet and colour-code everything. That’s an impressive show of initiative! I really appreciate all your hard work.”.
Most parents, however, content themselves with doing the first and not bothering to do the second.
Sometimes, they pat their kids on the head whilst absentmindedly nodding – even when they’re not actually paying attention – in a bid to convince the child that they are indeed paying attention.
Well, guess what?
Children are sensitive to every parental nuance because they think the world revolves around their parents.
So, they know when parents actually mean the praise they’re giving or not.
In fact, if you get lucky and end up with an especially perceptive child, like mine, you won’t get away with it.
One time, my 3-year-old asked me for my opinion and I said, “uh-huh” absentmindedly. My mind was going through the tasks I haven’t managed to cross off my to-do list. Instead of paying attention, I was fretting that I was never going to get it all done.
He frowned at me, tugged at my arm and said slowly and very clearly, “Mam, I’m talking to you. Please. I need attention.”
Try and get away from that! 😉
Want more info on the dangers of rewards and praise?
The impact of rewards and praise on motivation
Most parents don’t actually want to keep rewarding their children – especially for something as essential and basic as eating.
They simply try to reward and praise (as opposed to punishment) to get the child in question to eat more, try something new, eat everything on their plate etc and then, they’re hoping to eventually do away with the need for rewards and praise. You know, once the child is now doing whatever is expected of him.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that it doesn’t work like that.
When you reward and praise, it’s coming from the outside. It’s not something that the child really wants for herself. You’re basically manipulating your child into doing what you want.
Now, as a parent myself, I know where you’re coming from.
Of course, you don’t want your child to grow hungry or not get the nutrients he requires. You want them to have the best and to be the best they can possibly be.
It would also help if your child were to appreciate your hard work in preparing the meal. And what about the money that you spent (and the time you sacrificed for that money) to get that food on the table?
These are all good intentions.
But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
And the damage here can be far-reaching.
Extrinsic motivation (AKA the type of motivation that comes from outside yourself and the type of motivation that a child develops in response to the constant barrage of reward or praise) doesn’t last long.
Like an addiction, people are liable to change their behaviour just to get more of it. And worse, the motivation to do whatever needs doing for the simple fact that it’s the right thing to do begins to diminish.
In other words, rewarding and praising are counterproductive because you’re actually making it harder for children to want to do what they are being praised for – unless they are promised a reward first, that is.
Extrinsic motivation and food
In the context of food, the damage can be far worse.
When children realise that they will get X if they do as asked, they’ll ignore their bodies’ signals and keep eating to get the reward they want.
Even if they’re already full.
It doesn’t matter that most of the time, the parents choose how much food will be on the child’s plate. Or that parents usually just guess on portion size anyway.
On the flip side, parents swing like a pendulum to the other extreme. In fact, it’s quite common to hear a child saying, “Mom /Dad, I’m hungry.” get the response, “No, you’re not. You just had food a few minutes ago.”
Since it’s not our stomach, we can’t really tell if the children are hungry or not. We just assume they must be (or not) based on how much time has elapsed since they last ate or how much / little they’ve already consumed.
So what happens?
If this continues, the child eventually loses the ability to know when his or her body is full — forced as they are to always ignore what their bodies are saying.
And that is one of the most unhealthy eating habits parents tend to pass on to their kids.
Final thoughts on using food as a reward or punishment
To recap, the unhealthy eating habits you should stop teaching your child all result from resorting to using food as a reward or punishment in order to get him to eat more, try something new and finish whatever portion happens to be on his plate.
Rewards and praise, instead of reinforcing the habit you’d like to see, can actually be counterproductive and give you a child who needs to be bribed for her to eat.
More importantly, you could also end up with a child who loses the ability to regulate his own food intake and instead, ignores his body when it signals to him that he’s full or hungry.
Have you ever experienced being rewarded or praised for eating? What was it like? We’d love to read about any and all experiences so drop your comments below!
Hey Jade; children differ in habits and behaviours. While some children can be bribed with a reward to eat, there are those who will not eat the food they do not want to eat no matter what the parents’ reward might have been.
Parents should find a better measure to attract their children to eating than to praise and reward them. The action could result in danger. Is there any way a parent can motivate a child to eat?
Hi Dorcas, there are many ways but it depends on the child’s age. The methods that will work for a toddler will not necessarily work with a teenager for example. Though it may very well do.
What age were you thinking of? 🙂
Hi JADE, thank you very much for writing a great article about healthy eating habits for child. I think If we keep food choices healthy, our child is more likely to eat healthy. It’s that simple. The first step toward encouraging and teaching healthy eating habits is to fill our kitchen with a variety of nutritious foods. I hope to get more great article from you in the future.
Yes, that’s an excellent start! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us. 🙂
I’m going to be a daddy soon and these tips that you’ve shared, I will take note of all of them and apply to my own parenting. Based on your suggestion, at first it looks like parenting is a complicated process. But it’s worth a try, I will bookmark this beautiful website of yours, and apply what you’ve shared here. I think the real solution for a child that’s having an unhealthy eating habit is by explaining to the kid and making him or her understand the importance of having healthy eating habit.
That’s awesome! Congratulations and hope you find my content useful when you embark on your parenting journey. 🙂
I can only agree with your submission here on this post. Having some unhealthy eating habit could be result of the parent and the parent might actually be the ones that have impacted it on the children. This in any way can lead to other woeful and unsocial behaviours performed by the children. This is really great and I really fancy this a lot. Thumbs up to you for sharing these
You’re welcome. Glad you liked the post and thank you for sharing your thoughts. 🙂
You have made some great points here about praising your child in a less absent-minded way. This will work well not only for eating badly but also for other life situations.
It is extremely difficult to get your child to eat healthily all the time, and I think the most important thing is to have healthy food choices on hand for when they are feeling hungry, and not forcing them to eat if they are not. They say that a child will never starve himself, when he is hungry he will eat with or without our interference.
Yes, exactly that. Most of the time, we’re not prepared and many times, my son ended up with something sugary because I didn’t have anything healthier ready for him.
One time, we were on a train to Edinburgh. The whole trip should’ve lasted no more than 20 minutes and we were going to have lunch in the city.
Something happened and we were stuck on that train for about 2 hours. They didn’t have any food onboard except for crisps.
My poor son had three packets of salted crisps because he was so hungry.
I was really feeling awful for not bringing food for him but the whole point of the trip was to go have lunch somewhere nice.
Now, I always have fruit packed in his bag just in case.
Thank you first for giving us such a beautiful article. Strongly agree with you because I think every parent should stop their children from eating unhealthy foods. From an early age, they should be refrained from eating unhealthy foods and discouraged. We have to bring good food in front of them so that the children do not eat with pleasure and tell them that if they eat this food, they will be given a gift. I want to read the book you mentioned about children’s food, and I want to know more
Thank you for your comment. I recommend the book wholeheartedly. It really changed the way I view things. 🙂
I agree with what you wrote, Jade. Eating should never be connected to the reward – praising system. Because that can lead to life long battle with food. I am a big supporter of intuitive eating. And to teach our children about it – that’s the way to go!
”When children realise that they will get X if they do as asked, they’ll ignore their bodies’ signals and keep eating to get the reward they want”. Exactly! We should listen to them more, and assume less…
Yes, you’ve put it so beautifully! We should listen more and assume less. I love it! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experiences. 🙂