You know when you are running late in the morning and your little one seems to be taking their sweet time, dragging the getting ready process as they really don’t want to go to school or daycare? Your blood pressure is starting to rise, as you need to get into work or to an appointment and you just need them dropped off? You start to bargain with your toddler and it results in “if you hurry and get to school quickly, we’ll get ice cream later.”
It’s a common tactic parents use, and it often works, if the reward is acceptable and desirable for your child. I have heard parents use food as a reward in various situations – getting a child to sit still or be quiet, behave in a class, listen, etc. It is understandable that parenting is difficult and often parents are concerned and worried about their children behaving appropriately (or to their expectations).
What often happens by using food as a reward is it also gives value to the food. What does this mean? In the toddler’s world, they have a currency or bargaining chip.
It means how they act is dependent on what they get in return. This can be a downward spiral for their behaviour if they start believing that they will only do X if they get something in return, which is not how life works. It also means they will internally start holding the bargaining food (candy, ice cream, cookies, whatever the desirable food is) with a higher value. It will be a food that they worship – it triggers the pleasure sensors in their brain when they think about it. This puts the food in the category of any other addiction – the equivalent of a childhood drug.
Instead of using food, I believe in using respectful parenting to help in these situations and go for trying to connect with your child. Go to the park after school or something else that you really enjoy doing together. Keep food as food – what we need to nourish our bodies to help them grow and stay strong, and a source of connection and enjoyment with others around the table at mealtimes.