Monday, June 27, 2011

Why Parents Should Avoid Food Rewards, and What To Do Instead

I can't think of a single culture in which food hasn't been used as a way to comfort, console and reward. (I can, however, think of a few where food is more or less synonymous with comfort and love).  But we now know that there can be unhealthy, unintended consequences, both mental and physical, when we seek solace from what we eat.

People who eat for comfort or reward tend to gain too much weight, and often end up retreating from other activities and life experiences more than they otherwise would. Sadly, you see this same behavior in our overweight children as well. They self-consciously shy away from participating in sports and other outdoor activities with their peers, and are robbed of so many of the usual pleasures of childhood.

Good parental guidance is key in stopping this growing trend.  And we can do even more for our kids than serve healthy food in healthy portions.  We can chip away at the deceptive association between happiness and food, if we stop rewarding our kids with edible treats and give them something much, much better instead: our attention.

Decades of research on human happiness suggest that people have three fundamental needs:  autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  In other words, people derive lasting happiness and well-being when they do things that interest them, master skills and challenges, and feel close to others.  The great thing about rewarding and comforting your children with your attention, rather than food, is that you are giving them a chance to fulfill all three of their needs.

Treat them to a favorite game or read to them from a book they love. All children like making things with their hands, from coloring books to play dough, and they like it more when you join in.  Teach them a new craft if you are lucky enough to be good at one, or learn together from a magazine. You might take them for a walk in the park or to the playground.  The important thing is that they enjoy themselves and the reward you both have chosen.

As our children grow and mature, their favorite things will grow with them.  With your help, they will have learned to find their happiness and comfort in the right places – the places where their deepest needs will be met.

Good luck with your goal!

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