“A piece of candy for all who finish their spelling test on time today!” or “If you finish all your dinner and I’ll give you a lollypop!” are good examples of common situations where sugar is presented as a reward. At first this seems pretty harmless, after all how bad is just one little piece of candy? The problem lies in the accumulation factor and the unintended subliminal message resulting in long term effects. When a child is rewarded at school by their teacher, at home by their parent, at an after school activity by their coach - you can do the math. It will become obvious that their intake of refined sugar and empty calories amount to way more than intended.
The second issue of concern is the message this reward practice sends; kids associate feeling happy and accomplished with sugar. This message becomes imprinted in their mind, translating into behavior pattern. For example, when you have a long and challenging day at work, you may grab that candy bar on your way home - the message plays in your head: “I deserve this reward.” Or when you complete a task either physical or intellectual that you have struggled how often does your celebration includes cake, cookies and or other high sugar containing desserts? Digging even deeper, what about those times when you struggle through emotional downs such as a break up, a fight with a friend, or a loss of someone dear to them, the common cure for all is to dive into a pint of ice cream topped with sprinkles! When do you think you learned this reward system?
When you were a child you were taught to relate feeling happy and excited with eating sugar. Therefore, when you are feeling sad and yearning that state of mind of happy thoughts, you reach for sugar to deliver it.
We need to change how we reward children immediately and in the process hope that we also alter our own way of looking at sugar as “just a small treat that can causes no harm.” There are better ways and you probably already use some of them anyways. Cupcakes, ice cream, chocolate can still exist in a child’s world, but let’s break the connection between sugar and rewards.
Children are indeed little sponges, and they remember everything! What you say to a child today will shape their confidence for life. Simply offering a compliment when deserved is an effective way to reward children. We underestimate its positive long term behavioral impact. Try this: when a child or student finishes an assignment on time, make eye contact with them and fully express how proud you are with words such as, “You worked very hard to finish your work and you succeeded, for that reason I am so proud of you.” Remarks that will encourage them to repeat the behavior and more importantly build character.
Most parents have used a reward chart at one time or another, probably the first one was associated with potty training. Reward charts are perfect for children who are visual learners. They thrive by looking at their chart filled with stars reporting their accomplishments. It is also a good way to teach children patience and diligence. They begin to understand that continued good behavior will lead to pleasant situations. Focus on goals that involve spending time with the child. Teachers, a couple of goal ideas are to enjoy lunch time with the principal or an opportunity to be the helper for the day. Parents, a visit to a park together, or attending an art class together. This will build priceless reward memories!
Nothing can be more frustrating to a child than always changing the rules. Therefore, when you make the decision (which you should after analyzing the reasons why not to reward with sugar) stick to it! It can be tempting to dangle that piece of candy in front of a child to get quick results. But focus on the long term effects of that behavior and use other meaningful rewards instead.
Your child’s currency is what motivates your children today. It will change over time. Older kids are usually motivated by allowed time with their video games or extra time to watch TV. Younger kids will often jump through hoops to earn an extra 15 minutes of lights on before bed time. In short, forget the food and reward with your children with their currency.
Going back to being consistent, this means making sure everyone that comes into contact with your children is aware of how you chose to educate and reward your children. The good news is that most will agree with you and be willing to help change the way your child is rewarded. Ideally, you can start this from day one so your child will only know this to be their reward system, never expecting a sugary treat. Those starting this a little later in life will need to sit down and explain to your children why sugar will no longer be a reward and allow them to express how they feel and adjust their expectations. Don’t underestimate their understanding of your new reward system. Be sure to let them know they will still indulge in sweet treats at special occasions, parties and other events. The goal is to break the bond between reward and sugar!
This is probably my number one issue with how and where sugar is used as a reward. The classroom is a place where children go to learn. They look up to their teachers; they respect their opinions and strive to please them. By rewarding good behavior in the classroom, or correct answers with sugar a teacher unintentionally connects that “emotional” feeling of success and happiness with sugar. When a piece of candy is given out by a teacher, it automatically received the endorsement by an authoritative figure. If my teacher gave me candy then it must be good for me, right? Wrong, and it will immediately interfere with the learning process.
The rebuttal most people say when discussing this subject is: “But it is just one piece, how bad can that be?” In fact, research has shown that kids who have a diet higher in junk foods containing sugar during their first two year of life had lower IQ by age 8. When adding in your calculator you will realize how all the sugar-filled foods and drinks your child may consume in a day quickly adds up to excess. Common culprits are cookies, soda, cereals (this is another topic, but just a quick reminder, watch for sugar content in your children’s cereals!). Consider this, if your child gets just one piece of candy per day from their teacher, every other day from you and just once a week from their coach, throw in there a birthday or holiday celebration and by the end of the week they consumed an extra (give or take) 40 teaspoons of sugar. No wonder research says kids eat about 275 pounds of sugar a year - that’s more than 27 ten pound bags!
“If you eat all of your broccoli then you can have a slice of chocolate cake,” doesn’t sound like such a bad deal to me? Two issues here, you missed the opportunity to explain to the child why they should eat the broccoli in the first place. Don’t underestimate the power of connecting food with how it actually fuels their body, kids get this. Second, you just gave broccoli a bad name. After all this is the unintended signals you are sending: “If you endure this awful task of eating this green thing on your plate we will reward you with sugar; remember that thing that makes you hyper and happy inside?”
That piece of candy you used as a reward, whether you like it or not, has inadvertently taken the place of something nutrient rich the child could have eaten. As a rule, you should not use any food at all as a reward, therefore, you shouldn’t switch the candy for a blueberry. But the fact is that when you eliminate high-calorie, sugar-dense foods as rewards children are more likely eat the berries, nuts and other brain boosting foods offered at snack or meal time.
Have you taken a bite of a fresh picked tomato and tasted how sweet they are? Unfortunately, most people’s flavor palates have been dulld by their lifelong habits of eating junk foods. This results in the perceived need to stimulate their taste buds by adding unhealthy amounts of salt to all their vegetables and sugar to their fruit for it to have any taste at all. As a nutritionist one of the lessons I often teach often is how to “re-educate” one’s flavor palates. Everyone can do this! Children are in the process of acquiring their taste buds and preferences. When you offer a piece of candy to a child, you are tilting the scale dramatically upwards as they measure sweetness in all foods that child tries there on after. Avoid excessive sugar and salt and offer as much fresh real whole food as possible to help your children build a rich and sensitive palate that will lead to a long term healthy lifestyle.
Rewards are offered with the best of intentions. No one means any harm when giving a piece of candy to a child as praise for a job well done; they believe they are acknowledging their success. Unfortunately the consequences of rewarding children with sugar go beyond the popular discussion topics of childhood obesity, type 2 Diabetes, and early onset of chronic disease (those are nothing to be taken lightly as well!).
This behavioral pattern becomes imbedded in the brain resulting in a lifelong connection between sugar-filled rewards and that desired feeling of satisfaction and comfort. The good news is that changing this small habit with just as effective ways to reward children is not that difficult and can provide some immediate measurable results. Bottom line: remember to praise your children with meaningful words, choose activity related rewards instead, and encourage them to snack on fruits and vegetables that fuel their body!
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