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Is it wrong to reward your kids with food?

Erin Zammett Ruddy

At book club the other night a friend was telling us that she doesn’t keep any cookies or candy or sweets in her house because, if she did, she’d eat them all. The mothers in the group responded practically in unison: “So how do you bribe your kids?”

We definitely limit the sugar intake in our house but I have doled out treats as a reward for potty training and as a ploy for shutting the $@#^* up when we’re driving in the car (my bank and my wine store both give out dum dums and because I frequent both places frequently, I’ve accrued a little stash of lollipops for such emergencies). To me, sweets are a treat, not a given, so I make the kids work for them a little. Is this so wrong?

When I quickly googled the issue, here’s what I found, which kinda makes sense: “when foods, such as sweets, are used as a reward, children may assume that these foods are better or more valuable than other foods. For example, telling children that they will get dessert if they eat all of their vegetables sends the wrong message about vegetables.”

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Hmm. My kids don’t have a big issue eating their dinner or their vegetables (except peas for Alex—he’s like the princess and the pea and if one accidentally gets buried in his pasta, he sniffs it out) so we don’t usually have to bribe them to eat. OK, sometimes we have to play games to get the broccoli down or we have to yell “sit the @^%! down and eat your chicken!” (kidding, of course), but we rarely have dessert and my kids don’t expect it so we're good there I guess. And if we were going to bribe them, it would be with TV, not ice cream. Bed time is my favorite time of day—why would I sabotage that by loading my kids with sugar?!  I also feel like the fact that I have a huge organic veggie garden in my backyard that my kids love to eat from sends a great message about vegetables and buys me a few free passes on the candy bribing front. So there, WebMD.

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Still, I really don’t keep a lot of sweets in my house because a: My kids get plenty of crap elsewhere. b: I’m bad at saying no so if they saw such crap, I’d likely give it to them. c: I don’t have a big sweet tooth so I don’t think to buy sweets. Oh, and d: Because any time I do have a box of Girl Scout cookies or a Black & Green chocolate bar, Nick polishes them off before the rest of us have a chance. When Alex asks if he can have something “unappropriate” after Nora goes to bed (and if I feel like saying yes) I’ll give him a stale marshmallow, leftover from summer s’mores making, and a few chocolate chips. Kinda pathetic, I know, but he loves it.

Sadly, my meager treat cabinet doesn’t translate to kids who don’t get rewarded with sugar. My mother has become the grandmother who always has candy with her and is ready to shell it out for a small price (e.g. "please"). It’s Pavlovian at this point. They say “Hi, Grandma!” and immediately start jonesing for a lollipop, or a mint, or any other strange array of goodies she’s collected from baby showers and gift bags and God knows where else. This is particularly frustrating since my sisters and I grew up in a house where candy was an Easter and Halloween thing only. And with our extended family, we’re always getting together to celebrate for one reason or another (Nick’s birthday! Aunt Meggie’s home! It’s Tuesday!) so my kids get cake and cookies a lot. And when dessert is a given, we do say, “not until you eat your dinner.” So I guess I am guilty of putting sweets on a pedastal. But what’s the alternative, letting them eat the cake as an appetizer?

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I realize this is probably the worst topic to bring up the week before Halloween, but I’m curious. Do you use sweets and candy as a reward? Do you dole them out sparingly? Do you think it matters? Any other reasons we shouldn’t be bribing our kids with Kit Kats? I really don't think I'm creating bad food habits or unhealthy relationships to sweets, but who knows? Let’s discuss. Oh, and Happy Halloween!