Recently I overheard a parent telling a swimming coach, “If Lisa is good at class today and listens, she gets M&M’s.”
Food is often used by parents as rewards with the best of intentions, however this potentially classifies food in a less desirable way for the child. It is important that children have a positive association with food and that includes food meeting their basic need for energy and nutrition. When food is used as a reward, food begins to be classified not as just a food, but as a treat, which has more importance. Treats are like drugs, there is a positive association that occurs when it is received, which causes a child to want more of it. (This is due to positive physiological responses, especially in the brain.) It also can override the body’s awareness of need, which can cause a child to start losing the ability to acknowledge and understand their body’s requirements, and eat to satisfied emotional needs.
Babies are born with the innate ability to self-regulate their intake, to meet their physiological needs. Ideally, this ability can be fostered, so the child will grow up to be able to continue to self-regulate, which will result in the adult being of body size s/he is genetically predisposed for. Often children learn to treat food in ways that override this innate ability which can lead to higher chance of obesity, eating disorders, and/or chronic diseases.
Parenting is difficult, and if you need to provide a reward to your child, please use something other than food.