When my daughter (Big A) was 4, I took her to the hairdresser. As usual, she didn’t want to get her hair washed. The hairdresser kept pushing it until I finally said, “Maybe there’s something we could entice you with, sweetie.” While I was quickly brainstorming a reward, like a book, the hairdresser quickly chimed in with, “A lollipop — you can’t get a lollipop unless you get your hair washed.”
Before I could say anything Big A moved (more like sprinted) straight into their hair washing seat. As she was getting situated she got scared and told me she didn’t want to do it. The hairdresser said in a sing-songy voice, “Well, then you won’t get a lollipop.” And then Big A checked in with me: “Mom, can I still get a lollipop?”
“Yes, sweetie,” I replied. The hairdresser glared at me, with a look of disbelief, and I told her that as a dietitian I can’t use food as a reward and then apologized.
What’s the Big Deal?
While I think a lot of parents know that using food as a reward isn’t the best strategy– they do it because it works in the short-term. The truth? If I didn’t know what I know, I would probably have rewarded Big A with food at some point. No doubt it would have worked.
Problem is, research shows that using food to reward (and punish) has the power to change a child’s relationship with food, and not for the better. In the feeding literature, this type of feeding is called “instrumental feeding.” Basically, it’s using food as a means to control a child’s behavior.
One common way parents instrumentally feed is to give a child a treat in turn for eating acceptably at dinner (or not giving it if they don’t). Unfortunately, this has been shown to increase value for the reward food instead of the target food. In other words, kids come to value sweets more than healthy food. In one study, children who were instrumentally fed, compared to those who weren’t, were less likely to try a vegetable repeatedly offered when there was no reward.
Other studies show instrumental feeding increases the risk of emotional eating and preferences for high fat, high sugar foods while decreasing the ability to regulate food intake. When you think about it these three go together. When a child eats in response to difficult emotions they are more likely to choose high, fat high sugar foods (foods rewarded and punished with) and because they are eating in the absence of hunger, their eating becomes dysregulated.
But the real question is what does this do for kids’ relationship with food in the long run?
For more on rewards, see my post Does Rewarding Kids to Eat Healthy Backfire?
What Happens 20 Years Later
I found two studies look at the long-term effect of instrumental feeding. In a 2003 study in Eating Behavior 122 adults were asked about their current eating habits along with their memories about food as kids. The adults who recall parents using food to control behavior through reward and punishment were more likely to use dietary restraint (restricting food practices such as dieting) and binge eat.
A second study in 2014 with 165 undergraduate students showed that instrumental feeding in childhood mediated the relationship between binge eating in response to negative affect. In other words, those who were instrumentally fed as kids were more likely to binge eat in response to negative emotions (AKA emotionally eat).
While these studies can’t prove cause and effect, it makes you think about the learned association kids make when it comes to food. And how they carry this with them into their adult lives.
What Are We Trying to Teach?
A study done with twins suggests that emotional eating is primarily a learned behavior. In fact, 91 percent of the time it’s traced down to shared environments. It’s not written into a child’s genes being passed down from generation to generation. No, it’s something they learn, which can start very early in life.
Repeatedly using food to reward and punish teaches kids the wrong things. It teaches kids that food is tied to emotions both good and bad. It teaches kids that treats are the best thing ever. It teaches kids that food helps solve problems. It teaches kids to eat when they are not hungry. This leaves them ill-prepared for the food-plenty world in which we live.
So let’s stop using food as a reward and punishment at home, in the classroom, and anywhere else. Twenty years later, kids will thank us by having a healthy, carefree relationship with food.
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