At the end of a soccer game the kids rally around the cookie box. They congratulate themselves on a game well played and dive into the sugary snacks.
The harried Mom begs for a little cooperation and stands in the aisle shoving a box of animal crackers (organic, of course) in front of her little one. “Just be good, honey, and Mommy will treat you with these when we’re in the car.”
The list goes on. How many ways do we reward our children with food? A special dinner, parties, good grades, clean rooms; it’s so easy because it works equally well as both a bribe and a reward. Food is love after all and who do we love more than our kids?
I lived in a mixed marriage. By that I mean my parents (mostly my Dad) taught me how to cook. My husband’s parents (exclusively his Mom) plopped a plate of food in front of him three times a day. When he asked for a sandwich, it was made for him; if I wanted a sandwich, I made it myself. So when our son was born I knew that I would teach him how to cook. When he was diagnosed at the age of four with a list of food allergies, I realized it was now more than an ideal; it was a necessity for him to know how to cook in order to live well in adulthood.
But you’re not going to hand a four-year-old a knife or a peeler or stand him over a hot stove. We started with brownies. Yes, the brownie recipe we use is spectacularly good and simple, and soon he was asking to help me cook. He loved the time spent with me in the kitchen and he loved learning new things. But I had created yet another “food as reward” system.
Then I remembered that “Food Is Love” and I realized that loving your children means feeding them tasty and nutritious food, not just food they like to eat (and is likely tasty but not at all nutritious). There is a huge difference.
My son is almost ten now and we concoct pancakes, salads, meatballs (he loves those), and, of course, the brownies. His repertoire is expanding rapidly and I already know that he’ll be fine as an adult. He’ll even be able to cook well enough to impress a girl. An added extra bonus has been that we get to practice fractions during cooking time and he sees the relevance of his math lessons at school.
We all need to take a look at how we reward (and bribe!) our kids in order to get stuff done. (Both them doing a task AND them leaving us alone so we can complete our work.) I’m not pointing fingers at anyone; I’m as guilty as the next Mom … but we all need to get a little better at letting food be a cultural center in our home and not a reward system.
Here are some ideas …
- Focus on the family meal as a time to be together. Simple fare is fine, the important thing is the bodies around the table.
- Don’t let sugar be the reward ever. All you’re doing is teaching your child that they’ll feel better if they eat something sweet. You’re setting them up to struggle with weight for the rest of their life.
- Have a treat jar that’s full of paper. Yes, write down things that your child enjoys and when he or she does something worthy, let them pick from the treat jar. Rewards could be play time, a small gift (comic books work great in this house), or whatever you deem appropriate for your home.
Have you weaned yourself off a food reward system in your house? What tricks were effective for you? We’d love to hear from you and start a conversation.