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 when in public. When trying to avoid a temper tantrum in the grocery aisle or at grandma's house, grabbing a cookie seems like the easiest option. Or, if you are looking to reward your child's straight A report card, a double fudge sundae may be in order. Although as a mom myself, I certainly realize that there are times where turning to a "treat" is the only option, as a general rule, using food as a disciplinary tool is not a good idea.
Food and your child's emotions
In addition to praising and disciplining 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. Yet again, this can set up an unhealthy relationship with food that is often difficult to break.
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 it "all better," the child may turn to food to numb their feelings.
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. Attention What children want more than anything else in this world is their parents' 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. Gold stars 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 your child to see. Every day your child reaches his or her goals (for example, 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 going to the movies. The method is up to you and teaches your child valuable lessons of motivation, persistence and determination.
3. Goals 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 his 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.
4. Alternatives Keep non-food options such as books and toys in your purse in case you need a quick distraction for your toddler.
5. Healthy eating Involve your children with healthy mealtime preparations and grocery shopping. It is important to honor and listen to their likes and dislikes in terms of foods. Make healthy eating a fun and delicious family affair.
In a nutshell
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!
Dr. Joey Shulman is the author of Winning the Food Fight (Wiley, 2003) and the Natural Makeover Diet (Wiley, 2006). For more information, visit www.drjoey.com.