Breaking the Food Reward Chain


Cindy Hutter
Cindy Hutter

As I’m about to introduce my young daughter to solid foods, I find myself thinking more and more about how I want to avoid using food as a reward—a practice that seems so ingrained in our culture.

There will be no rewards of sweets when my daughter finishes her vegetables or puts her toys away. There will be no lollipops for behaving well during a haircut or any other activity. Yes, I know. More seasoned parents everywhere are reading this and rolling their eyes thinking, “Just you wait.” But is it so crazy to think this isn’t possible? Why can’t rewards be extra outdoor play time or reading another book at bedtime or letting a child pick the family activity for the day, or even an old fashioned gold star sticker?

These same issues seem to follow us into adulthood. In almost every office I’ve worked, treats always seem to magically appear on Fridays as a defacto reward for making it through another week. Or, how about the promises to buy a friend a drink if they help you out with a favor. Instead of rewarding behaviors with food, what about a manicure or downloading of a new phone app. Surely food (or drink) isn’t the only motivator for people.

As NICHQ CEO Charlie Homer points out in his recent blog post about viewing health as a system, if we really want to improve children’s health, we need to focus not just on improving the quality of care children receive when they go to the doctor’s office; we need to change all influences that affect a child’s health. This includes modeling and practicing healthy behaviors at home, in school and in the community.

Are you willing to break the food reward chain with me? Start small. Pick one time this week when you would have traditionally used food as a reward and pick a non-food reward. See how your reward-receivers (your child, your spouse your coworkers) react and share your experience in a comment on this post. I’ll bet nearly 100 percent of people crave the satisfaction of being rewarded in any form, not necessarily by the food that serves as the reward. Once it works, pick another time and another time to swap in non-food rewards.

If enough of us practice this new behavior, as adults with other adults or as adults with children, it won’t seem so odd after a while and we can start to break the chain.

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2 thoughts on “Breaking the Food Reward Chain”

  1. As a parent of a young child, I can identify with you and this topic is something we talk about a lot in our house. I completely agree that food rewards are ingrained in our culture. Other parents often look at me strangely when we politely decline a juice box or other treats at play dates. “But it’s a special occasion!” they will tell me. We’ve been offered lollipops everywhere – the bowling alley, drycleaner, barber, and even the dentist! I can’t say that we never give in or indulge, but when we do, it’s a mindful decision.

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