Getting Real with Kira Hazledine

A lot of mom rants have been popping up in my news feed about how damaging it is to use food as a reward system. Leads to unhealthy habits and makes junk foods “taboo” and “too desirable” or whatever. Apparently, it doesn’t teach moderation or whatever, and I get that. But come on. It’s not the reward that’s the problem, it’s the reward system.

As a psychology graduate with many years of basic psychology classes under my belt, I’ve heard the various reinforcement techniques a million times. They all have their benefits and are a part of Psych 101 for a reason. They work, and some better than others. What is believed to work better than any other method is a random approach. Sometimes a reward is given, sometimes it’s not.

That’s where I’m at with my toddler. Some days she gets a cookie after lunch, some days she doesn’t. If she asks and I say “no” it’s because she hasn’t finished her meal. But if she finishes her entire meal, why shouldn’t she get a cookie? Even as an adult, that’s how I get through every salad I eat, ever.

And any parent with a toddler knows that meal time can be disastrous. How these kids survive off cheese sticks alone, I’ll never know. But they do! In those moments, it is the rewards of Alexa and cheese balls that get me through. My toddler is obsessed with our Alexa system from Amazon and is fascinated that Alexa will tell jokes and sing songs. If she wants to hear a joke, guess what? Better take a bite of your lunch. Want to hear Baby Shark? That’s going to cost you two or three bites. Oh, you need more cheese balls? Better have some bites of food that are actually good for you.

We act like rewards aren’t a consistent part of adulthood. Would you go to work if you didn’t get paid? Most of us would not. There are very few things in life that don’t involve some sort of motivation or reward system, but now kids can’t even have a freaking cookie or piece of candy because it “teaches bad habits.” You know what is needed when you’re using a reward system? An explanation.

Talk to your kids about why you are encouraging healthy habits, and hell, sometimes throw a cookie at them for snack just because. It’s not like you’ve never given your child a donut for breakfast before (and if you haven’t, I’m impressed). Yes, they will ask for a cookie for snack tomorrow, but that is your moment to explain why it’s not a good idea to eat cookies all the time. It’s not the reward system that’s the problem. It’s the lack of education. Take a moment to teach your kids healthy eating, model it yourself, and you’ll be surprised what they learn.