When Hilaria Baldwin recently shared that she withheld dessert from her 4-year-old son, Rafa, she was understandably conflicted about her chosen method of discipline. “Rafa wasn’t listening to me today about a few things. It got so bad that I ended up taking away dessert tonight,” she wrote. “Something I thought I would never do…but it truly was the only way I could think of to get his attention.” She bravely went on to acknowledge her own past eating disorder and how complicated our relationship with food can get. “For those of you who, like me, get nervous about using food as reward/punishment…I do believe that teaching [kids] to have a healthy relationship with food when they are upset is the most important thing.”
We get it—and we’ve been there. Who among us hasn’t chased a preschooler around a playground scream-whispering about ice cream? In fact, using rewards/bribes/incentives as well as threats/punishments/
Is it really so bad if the carrot is a cookie?
It turns out, kinda, sorta, yeah—if you do it regularly. Using food to control behavior—also known as “instrumental feeding”—is confusing to kids, for one. “Children hear that they’re supposed to enjoy foods that are good for them and avoid foods with little nutritional value,” note the experts at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “Being told that they can indulge in foods that are bad for them as a reward for doing something good sends a mixed message. They may also start associating unhealthy foods with certain moods—when you feel good about yourself, for instance, it’s OK to reach for a sweet.” Kids want nothing more than parental approval, not even fudge brownies. So when we involve both their emotions and their taste buds (which naturally lean toward sweeter preferences), we make a powerful case that unhealthy foods are the most desirable.