L ast week, we heard from a mom worried about her daughter's attitude to food.
"Through a series of events," she wrote, "my toddler now expects treats for a variety of events: a treat for finishing her healthy dinner; a treat after finishing a difficult chore or task or just because. My concern is that she is building up an unhealthy view of food, for example, that good food is bad and bad food is good.
How do I reverse this? She only gets one dark chocolate square at a time, or popcorn etc. It's not that the treats are particularly bad, it's the way in which she is viewing food, as if healthy food is a task and unhealthy food is a pleasure."
Here's what our parent educators had to say:
G ood for you for noticing the negative impact rewards are already having on your child. Parents often find themselves stuck when they have used rewards. They don't know how to stop or they have to keep upping the ante to motivate their children to do something.
The only way to back out of this is to stop - period. Children don't have to earn everything. They don't have to earn that chocolate. It is simply given because we are all having a piece of chocolate today. A regular allowance can be given to teach children to budget and save. This hands responsibility over to a child and stops parents from being nickeled and dimed into resentment.
Is there ever a time that rewards are OK? Yes, occasionally, when a child is learning something new.
Some people use charts and target a few tasks that the child is ready to take on. If rewards are used, it's important to have a start and a finish. Usually, a twoto three-week period of using rewards is enough to allow the positive natural consequences to take place.
Reward is usually overused by parents (and schools). It's an extrinsic motivator - like punishment. Reward and punishment are two sides of the same coin. If a punishment is withheld, that is a reward, and if a reward is withheld, that is a punishment.
Both punishment and reward might bring immediate results, but the positive outcome is short-lived and comes with a huge price tag.
It takes a toll on a child's self-esteem, the parent/child relationship, a child developing an internal drive and desire to take responsibility.
When parents get into a tit-for-tat exchange- "If you do this, I'll give you that" - they inadvertently commercialize the relationship they have with their children. The other problem is that children learn only to do things if there is a reward attached. The question "What are you gonna give me for it?" becomes very unattractive to the parent and the rest of society as the children mature.
Giving a child chocolate for eating her meal is teaching her that eating dinner is an unpleasant experience.
"Shovel down that food so you can have this luscious dessert" is the message. It stops her from having a healthy connection with her own body: "I'm hungry, I want to eat" or "I'm full, I need to stop eating."
Worse, it teaches her to eat to gain the approval of her parent or to not eat to get back at the parent.
The same thing happens when we pay children to do regular household chores.
We teach them that it isn't really their responsibility to contribute. (Do you get paid for doing regular household tasks?) When children are paid for every little thing they do, it robs them of having a sense of responsibility and belonging to the family. When they are older and get a babysitting job or a paper route, they won't contribute to chores simply because they don't need the money.
So how do we deal with chores? We can say things like "When you pick up your toys, then we can read the book." Or "When we all do our share of chores this morning, then we can have an afternoon of freedom and play."
Yes it's a reward, but one that teaches the natural balance of life. Responsibility equals freedom.
Allison Rees Parent Educator LIFE Seminars
Food can be a huge source of anxiety for parents. We have good nutrition at the forefront of our minds, and often feel guilty when we allow our children treats that are definitely not healthy. Linking unhealthy treats to behaviour can cause problems as the child grows up, leading to the use of food for comfort, or as a reward for a job well done.
This can lead to emotional eating and other foodrelated challenges.
Culturally, food plays a pivotal role in our lives. We build relationships and celebrate the ups and downs of life over family meals and gatherings.
We need to preserve this relationship with food without overly connecting treats to behaviour. There are a few simple strategies you can employ to achieve this with your toddler:
- Take charge of the situation. You need to tell your child that things are going to change with regard to treats, and you are there to help her through this transition. Remind her that as her mum, you are in charge and it is your job to keep her healthy and strong and these changes will help her grow in the best possible way.
- Eliminate desserts from your regular meal routine. They can possibly be saved for things like Sunday dinner or special occasions. When you do offer dessert, do not make it contingent on eating healthy foods first. If dessert is a rare treat, it should not be permitted only after eating the less tempting (for children) healthier foods. Let her have her fill, enjoying it without judgment.
- Rewarding good behaviour with food puts the focus on the treat, rather than the good behaviour. Children should learn to do the right thing because it is expected - not because they might get a treat for it. Avoid offering treats for a job well done. Simple thanks, showing your appreciation, is all that is needed.
- I believe in the saying; "All things in moderation," which enables parents to allow their children treats on occasion. The key is not making the treat conditional on behaviour.
- Keep "treat" foods out of the house. That way, your children will not be peeking in the cupboards or freezer for the things you would prefer they not snack on. Consciously provide them when you decide a treat would be fun. "Out of sight, out of mind," is the principle here.
While your child is young, you have a wonderful opportunity to instill a healthy attitude to food and eating. By making it easy for your children to eat the way you prefer, they have a much better chance of growing up as strong, healthy individuals.
Jean Bigelow Parent Educator
Our 14-month-old and threeyear-old are getting into more conflicts. Mostly it happens when the one is playing with a toy by herself and the other one wants to play with it too.
Much pulling, pushing and screaming usually results. I suggest strategies to my older daughter, such as offering a different toy to the younger one as a distraction, or part of the toy (eg. sharing some blocks), or playing where the younger one can't go (such as at the kitchen table or in her room). Sometimes this works, but not always.
Reasoning with the younger one obviously doesn't work at this age. Now that she's mobile, she likes to get her hands on everything. She's very vocal about her displeasure when she has a toy snatched away, and is learning to copy her sister's screaming and pushing. I feel like I am having to rescue the younger one and always scold the older. But really, I would like to encourage them to get along and not have to play "police" all the time. How can I reduce the conflicts without having to have completely separate play spaces?
Do you have any advice for this parent? Are you struggling with a parenting dilemma? Send your input to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put "the parent rap" in the subject line. Questions about kids from infants to teens welcome.
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