If you have a ‘poor eater’ you may be tempted to praise your child when they finally eat something new, or green. Perhaps you clap, or cheer “well done, good boy for trying!”, perhaps others praise your child for eating all of their food, saying “good girl for eating up!” Or perhaps your child has come home from school with an award or a sticker saying “I ate all my lunch today”. Or perhaps you have just purchased a ‘healthy eating’ sticker reward chart for your toddler or preschooler.
All of these practices however can be highly damaging to a child’s relationship with food and can also cause more eating problems in the long-term.
Praising a child for eating can be incredibly counter-productive. While the child may initially try to eat the food on offer, in exchange for lots of praise from their parents, the effect is unlikely to be long-lasting. The most worrying outcome of praise however is not the temporary effect it has, but how it encourages children to override their innate satiety cues in favour of pleasing their parent. Research has shown that children who are regularly praised for eating are statistically more likely to grow to be overweight in later life. Being raised with praise for eating encourages the child to associate eating with feeling good, there is no surprise then that this emotional eating leads to disordered eating as the child grows and seeks to eat to make themselves feel better.
In a similar vein, rewarding for ‘good eating’ is also best avoided. Rewards may temporarily make a child eat more, however they can have a negative effect on whether the child actually likes the food and can cause an aversion to previously liked foods. This unintended negative outcome is even more likely if the reward on offer is another food, for instance if the child is rewarded with some ice cream if they eat their broccoli.
Praise and reward for eating is rife in many schools. Children are told “well done!” for trying something new, or eating all their lunch. When they were younger, my children often came home from school with stickers or certificates given for ‘good eating’. While some school staff may realise that rewarding a child for clearing their plate may not be such a good idea, the same people would often think that rewarding or praising a child for trying something new is sensible. The simple fact is, rewards and praise of any form surrounding eating is a bad idea. School staff should try as hard as possible to remain neutral and not comment on what children are, or are not eating. Most importantly, the stickers and certificates with smiley faces and stars proclaiming “I ate all my lunch today” really need to go.
Eating really should be emotion free. That means no praise and no rewards on offer. The true goal of Gentle Eating is to raise a child who has a healthy relationship with food, one who eats when they are hungry and stops when they are full and considers all food as fuel, not ‘naughty’ or ‘good’. When we reward, or praise a child for ‘eating up’, clearing their plate, or even trying something, we encourage them to override their own bodily cues. They may temporarily eat a little more, or try something green, however you are not instilling good eating habits. As a parent, your role is to stay neutral about the food the child eats, that means you don’t reward or praise when they eat ‘well’ and you don’t admonish them if they don’t eat something either.
If you would like to learn more about Gentle Eating – and how to raise a child with a healthy relationship with food (who also eats vegetables!) check out my Gentle Eating Book. Available HERE in the UK , HERE in Australia and New Zealand and HERE elsewhere in the world.