good job! now here’s a cookie.

Death and taxes. The only two certainties in this world that are commonly agreed upon. But I’m adding another: reward the kiddies with treats and you’re setting them up for a wacky relationship with food. First, eating when one is not hungry is ill-advised because slowly but surely one becomes less in tune to what hunger feels like and as a result might eat mindlessly. Second, rewarding a child in the form of food will only encourage the child to expect the same next time. Third, do you really want your child to grow up having an emotional attachment to food?

Sounds harsh? Well, it is. But I’m not advocating a complete annihilation of all things sweet. Treats can and should be enjoyed guilt-free by kids and adults alike (here’s my ecstatic son mere seconds before getting squirted with red jelly), but the reason for the indulgence should be celebratory and occasional.

Parents need a supply of tricks up their sleeve (or in their purse), and many believe that using a good old (well, maybe not old) bonbon will help get results faster, and quieter. But it’s a slippery slope. Literally. After a full-day skiing lesson what about hot chocolate? It’s all in how you word it. “If you listen to your ski instructor, I’ll buy you hot chocolate after the lesson” is giving a different message than “after the lesson we’re going to have a special treat: hot chocolate. Have fun!” Listening (or not) to the instructor can affect your child’s other privileges, like using the computer, having a friend over, or even a return visit to the mountain for another lesson, but should not be related to food.

In theory, the idea that you have to eat dinner before you can have dessert makes some sense, but be wary of telling children statements like “you have to eat dinner before you can have dessert”. Instead, make it clear at the beginning of dinnertime (and for all meals, for that matter) that there is a natural progression and order of a meal. Dinner first, then dessert and when people miss a step, they don’t go on to the next step.

It’s up to parents to train tiny tummies from the start to love food and yet eat it only when they’re hungry. Stop reading for a second and write down five inedible rewards that your own child would appreciate. Now go through your home and see if you already have any of these items. Lastly, go shopping this week for whatever items you don’t have and keep everything in a box marked Legal Documents (most children don’t ever snoop in these places, unless you have one of those types of kids) and there is your new rewards system.

A word about non-material rewards: they are super. Not to mention they usually cost less. Like giving a huge hug and saying way to go! Or taking your child for a special outing just the two of you.

For parents that routinely use candy as incentive, this is a hard nut to crack, but the nut must be cracked nonetheless. Talk to your kids about the change and explain why it’s happening.

Decide today that the words “if you do X, you’ll get a treat” will never pass your lips again.

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