Society has centered itself around food. Graduations, parties, get-togethers, family and life events – all of these are surrounded by food. Individuals may use food to reward themselves on a job well done, or to console themselves when things are not going well, or if they are feeling bad about something. Each person is different on how they use food in their lives. Nonetheless, food is a part of our lives and will continue to be so. This article is not about making a person feel bad about themselves at all; it’s about raising awareness for parents on other ways to reward children, and if anyone else can be open to these ideas, then that’s even better.
Growing up, I would get ice-cream if I ate all my dinner; a yummy birthday cake (which I still receive and love); brownies my dad would buy for me when a boyfriend broke up with me, and etc. When dad would come home from work on Fridays, we would get a special ice-cream treat then, as well. So, yes, life was given with rewards of food. No, not all the time, but we did celebrate many life events and occasions with food.
The challenge is breaking away from that and finding other ways to reward ourselves and, of course, our children.
Extra playtime with parents: A majority of parents are working full-time and long hours, kids are in school and have a lot of homework – all of this is taking away time with the family. So, playing extra with children is very rewarding. Plan family outings, playing board games, and engaging in imaginary play are all ways for children and you to enjoy time together. The wiggles get out, family is connecting, memories are created and the family bond is being strengthened.
Reward without using food: This can be challenging because, again, food has been a part of celebrations for a long time. I am not saying to not reward with an ice-cream or a special dessert, but it does not have to be the main choice for a reward. Again, extra time playing is rewarding to both child and the parent. You might also provide alternate rewards, such as allowing extra TV time on a weekend, or removing a chore from the child’s list for that night, having him/her pick the next family activity, letting the child to be the “boss” for one particular evening, giving them stickers to recognize their accomplishment, etc.
Increase physical activity: If your child is already active with sports, that’s great! If your child focuses more on TV or video games, then there are areas where change can happen. I am NOT saying to disallow TV or video games, but sedentary people tend to have difficulty staying at a healthy weight. Make a schedule for TV time, but balance that with a physical activity. So, if your child plays a video game for 30 minutes, have him be physically active for 30-45 minutes. Together, start doing jumping jacks, running in place, play an active Wii game together, or go outside for a walk. It is said that any type of activity is good, and I agree, but the focus is about physical activity for an hour at the minimum. PARENTS: lead by example. Break out an old work-out video and do it with your kids. Again, if any physical activity is beneficial, so would be short bursts of exercise.
Help children put feelings into words: Not every person can express themselves well, and this includes adults as well as children. Sometimes, those who aren’t good at displaying their emotions may choose to express their feelings via food, because food does not talk back, it’s always there and it can be comforting. Sometimes, Kraft Mac&Cheese sounds really good on a cold night or when I do not want to cook. I have to watch this too. When a person feels bored or is watching TV, they are prone to excessive eating, and may consume too many calories without realizing it. If a person is hurt or angry, he/she may turn to sweets or dessert foods. If we teach our children how to express what they are feeling, they may not turn to food for comfort. As their parent, children do watch and learn how you respond when having a bad day, so you will need to be mindful of how you relate your feelings and what you eat.
Model “downtime”: We are all busy with jobs, school, house, friends, etc., and life can be hectic. When we are busy, we are not mindful of what we are eating. When we give ourselves “downtime”, we can re-center ourselves, catch our breath and pause. Teaching children to pause and relax may help them to become more aware of their actions, responses and actual hunger. Children can be mindful of their feelings and come up with ways to resolve them. This is something that YOU, as a parent, need to model for them. Downtime can help in a lot of areas.
Find healthy alternative foods: There are a lot of recipe sites on the internet, and finding a healthier chocolate cookie recipe can be a healthy tool, but you will still need to set a limit. An overabundance of healthy alternatives could still have a negative affect on a person.
Instill a healthy concept of food: Food is good for you, and sometimes, even the not-so-healthy food can be good. Moderation is key, and each person will have to define moderation for themselves to a degree, although three pieces of cake realistically would not be moderation for anyone. When a person has a healthy concept of food, then there is a healthy balance. How you view the purpose of food and what it can do for you will determine how you relate to food. If you see food as fuel for your body, then you may make healthier choices. If you see food as a means of comfort, then you may eat unhealthy foods. Parents can help or hurt a child’s perception of food based on how they themselves think of food.
These are just a few thoughts and ideas of how you can reward your children when they do well with something besides food. I am sure you will be able to come up with other ideas.
© Copyright 2011 by Kelly Sanders, MFT, therapist in Rancho Cucamonga, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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