Today in WTF I don’t even

”It may sound draconian, but why are we rewarding children for good behaviour at all?”

Okay so I cherry picked this from this article scaremongering on childhood obesity. *puts on ranty pants, places tongue in cheek (somewhat)*

So why do we reward children for good behaviour? I mean it’s not like we reward anyone else for good behaviour is it? Convicted criminals never get time off their sentence for good behaviour. We never train our pets with praise for showing behaviours we approve of ‘Good kitty using the scratching post’ ‘Sit! Good dog!’. We never get rewards as adults for good behaviour like turning up to work and doing our job and getting paid. Or getting a bonus, or a payrise or perhaps even a promotion. Nope never happens. We never get praised, appreciated, spoilt, pampered, awarded, or reap the benefits of our good behaviour. So why should children? Why should we encourage the behaviour that we want to see rather than just expect it without a word of suggestion? Why aren’t we the shouty mean angry parents that deep down we know we should be? Why aren’t our children constantly cowering seen but not heard, and seen seldom like they should be. Why do our children expect to be treated like human beings? Why the fuck shouldn’t we reward good behaviour?

Sure, the researchers main point is that we shouldn’t reward good behaviour with ‘sweets’. But this assumes that all good behaviour is rewarded with sweet food. I don’t know any parent that responds to a child playing quietly with ‘oh you are so good this afternoon here have a chocolate’ or use of an inside voice with ‘here is a lolly snake’. Praise and reward come in all sorts of forms and there is no reason not to occassionally reward kids with a bag of lollies or a sweet treat. Claiming that this is the reason for the “childhood obesity epidemic” is pure spin as is in fact this whole ‘epidemic’ rubbish.

FED on a steady diet of fast food, soft drinks and television, 20 per cent of children are overweight or obese by the time they start kindergarten.

Sure my kids like TV but they couldn’t eat a whole one. So is it all children or only 20% who have this diet of fast food and soft drinks? Surely if this were the case then the 20% would have health problems like malnutition rather than just being overweight? I don’t buy into the overweight = unhealthy schtick in case you hadn’t noticed.

So what is my solution? Simple fund public schools better so they can teach kids about healthy eating and exercise and give them opportunities to engage in fun play. Don’t shame them because of their body shape or size. Don’t encourage eating disorders by harping on about epidemics, and provide more funding for people who do suffer from eating disorders. Better train doctors to treat the person not Drs prejudices about fat people. Realise that fat people can be healthy people too and that fat may not be the cause of all illnesses but rather a symptom. Or someone might just be fat because they are. That fat people might be okay with that and that it is not harming you if someone else is fat.

Categories: education, health, Life, media, medicine, parenting

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18 replies

  1. I don’t know any parent that responds to a child playing quietly with ‘oh you are so good this afternoon here have a chocolate’ or use of an inside voice with ‘here is a lolly snake’.

    Really? I do. Or rather, something set up in advance, more like “if you [do/don’t do something], we’ll go get an ice-cream together.” I don’t know of much “you did something I approve of so SURPRISE here’s a previously unannounced treat” but “I want you to do something I approve of soon, so here’s the promise of a treat after”.
    I don’t think this invalidates your overall point, but I think they are correct that some good behaviour is rewarded (or perhaps ‘encouraged’ is a better word) with the promise of sweet food.
    This article reminds me strongly of the obesity episode Life at 3 a little: all the parents swore up, down and sideways that yes, they did give their children sweet treats as rewards or incentives, but that their own parents were paragons of dietary virtue who never used food that way. I was highly skeptical: people don’t typically have very good (or, often, any) memories of being 3 years old, so they were comparing their parenting of a 3 year old with their memories of being parented at at least 5 or 6 years old, how very very odd that they remember it being different!
    And I seriously doubt it’s new to this generation of parents: how long has “or you’ll not get dessert!” been a cultural trope for?
    The question then is is this ever appropriate? The article seems to have the stance that sweet food should never be an incentive/reward, and approaching the stance that it should never be consumed by children at all. This is where I struggle a bit: I have not considered to my own satisfaction when it’s appropriate to give children extrinsic (imposed by others, external to the satisfaction of an activity itself) incentives/rewards at all. When I do settle that, I can see that food, especially shared food which is a major human incentive in general, can have a place among both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.
    And that’s leaving aside the shaming obesity epidemic part, which is so key.

  2. I was being a bit tongue in cheek there Mary, I do use food rewards with my kids as well. My point was that parents aren’t just randomly throwing sweet treats at their kids for every bit of good behaviour that they exhibit. I was taking the ‘catch them being good and praise them’ thing to its most ridiculous extent.
    I find that sometimes just getting through the supermarket is an ordeal and if the kids are off for ten minutes in the sweets aisle that is 10 minutes of blissful peace to grab the things I need. They are spending that 10 minutes choosing btw not stuffing their faces. We don’t do this every time either.
    I reward myself with treats too. I buy lunch instead of packing it, I do a chocolate run to the shops if I’m having a shitty or PMSessy day or I just want some. I just found that the article acted as if adults were paragons of virtue who never looked for rewards and children were being ruined if parents ever rewarded good behaviour with something nice to eat.

  3. So, I’m not sure of the value of the study and agree with what Mindy said about the “obesity epidemic” nonsense. However, I agree with Mary that in my experience many people do use food treats as rewards or inducements with children.
    I am inclined to the position that food shouldn’t be used as a reward. One reason is that it interferes with the maintenance of an intuitive approach to eating, which is recommended by many people as a way to prevent the development of eating issues. Another reason is that we follow unconditional/gentle parenting methods and this philosophy is against extrinsic rewards in general, for various reasons. (I don’t follow this perfectly – I gotta get a good night’s sleep and star charts really help). Mary, have you read any unconditional parenting material?

  4. Mindy, I think there’s a difference between you treating yourself (which is different from rewarding anyway) and rewarding someone else for their behaviour. The latter is what they’re getting at in the article. Also, sending your kids off to select treats doesn’t sound like a reward to me either, the way you describe it. It sounds like, here’s an activity you like, which keeps you occupied so I can get stuff done. I often use TV for that (don’t tell the SMH).

  5. ”20 per cent of children are overweight or obese by the time they start kindergarten”

    I’m gonna take a stab in the dark and guess that “overweight” was defined as “above the 80th centile on growth charts”.

  6. @Tamara it is a tricky one to negotiate. I try to avoid food rewards with the kids, although it is more often ‘I feel bad for x reason I want something nice to eat’ which I respond to with ‘I’ll give you a hug and a kiss to help you feel better’ because I am wary of ‘eating to feel better’ because I have had to train myself out of that habit.
    @Lauredhel, the article didn’t say what the measure was or whether it was the even less reliable BMI. I just wish that for once one of these studies would look at the underlying health of the kids, all of them not just the fat ones.

  7. So is it all children or only 20% who have this diet of fast food and soft drinks? Surely if this were the case then the 20% would have health problems like malnutition rather than just being overweight?

    There’s been a few articles in the newspapers over the last few years speculating on malnutrition in overweight children in Australia. For example looking at secondary measurements like lower than average height but higher weights in areas with high disadvantage. The theory being the children are getting plenty of food, but missing nutrition. I’ve no idea how reliable these sorts of studies are though.

    I don’t buy into the overweight = unhealthy schtick in case you hadn’t noticed.

    I don’t know how common it was, but back in the 80s when I was in high school they used to make us go through a fitness assessment every year. It did include weight/height/fat measurement (skin tests etc) but also various things like timed shuttle runs, longer distance runs etc.
    I wonder if they still do this and if so have long term data on the fitness of children.
    I had thought the “don’t use food as a reward” attitude was pretty mainstream these days, though I don’t follow it myself with my daughter and use her favourite foods for bribes/rewards. I’m just happy to get her to eat enough, though the older she gets the easier it seems to get…..

    I was highly skeptical: people don’t typically have very good (or, often, any) memories of being 3 years old, so they were comparing their parenting of a 3 year old with their memories of being parented at at least 5 or 6 years old, how very very odd that they remember it being different!

    Just one random data point, but my mum is stricter with my daughter on food and especially food rewards than I am. Though less strict than I remember her being with me! Grandparent effect perhaps.

  8. I wish I could remember where I read that four times as many kids were obese the day after they decided obese meant the heaviest quintile instead of the heaviest twentieth.
    Yes, my parenting style involves bribes positive reinforcement. These days there is more direct, matter of fact statement of preferred emotion than sugar, and most of the sugary rewards are for good manners when asking for sugar. It seems to be working for us.

  9. My daughter is 5 and 90th Percentile for height and weight. She is probably one of these ‘fat’ kids even though she is perfectly in proportion. The whole thing is ridiculous.

  10. I have 2 fat kids and 1 skinny kid. They all have the same food offered to them. It’s the skinny kid that lives on sugar and whose nutrition I worry about.
    When the kids were little I used to bribe with Matchbox cars and other small toys in a bid to make shopping trips survivable, it worked but it turned the kids into demanding monsters who thought they could have any toy they wanted just for behaving like civilized human beings. And the house filled up with plastic junk. You can’t win!

  11. I’ve seen quite a number of parents use food for incentives, bribes and general power play episodes. The supermarkets have figured this out, hence all the junk at the check outs.It’s very interesting that food seems to play such an important role in parenting. Why is that?
    My personal parenting technique with my now grown up children relied heavily on incentives and bribery, but it was never ever food. Eg. grocery shopping entailed a kiddie ride after ‘helping’. I’ve struck up many an interesting conversation with other parents at these rides. If there’s more than 1 seat you can even share the cost!
    And mealtimes were never a battle field. You have to sit nicely at the table, try everything at least once, give an opinion on said tasting (baby-throwing on floor, toddler-yuk!, older-tastes like…) and participate in the conversation. Adults don’t like everything, sometimes we need to try something a few times, why should children be different? And when kids have had enough to eat, they’ve had enough to eat. If there is dessert, they will get an appropriate serving. Dessert is the next course, not a reward. Clever child for pacing self! Don’t adults do that too? Sometimes they eat like wolves, sometimes like sparrows.
    Chocolate, ice cream, cakes, cookies and all that sort of stuff where sponteous treats we all participated in when out and about or planned for a particular purpose. Never for reward, just a treat, because we could and it was a good idea at the time!

  12. I saw this article too and also did a double take at that line. Why do we reward our children for good behaviour? Um, because it works? Red-headed Boy is far more amenable to bribes than he is to threats, and the promise of dessert has been absolutely key to getting him to eat more than plain pasta and rice.
    We do some rewarding with dessert/lollies (mostly of the promissory kind – eat your dinner/tidy your room/be good while mum does this and then you can have a …), but what I have been worrying about more lately is giving my children lollies or so on when they are upset (most usually from hurting themselves). We don’t always have lollies in the house, so it’s not consistent, but I do worry that this will lead to comfort/disordered eating.
    @mimbles – we used to do the same thing with my eldest and I have much sympathy for the house full of plastic junk. Also your skinny kid sounds like one of my brothers. He was (and still is) as thin as a rail and for most of his teenage years consumed only honey sandwiches and coffee.
    @Chris – your Grandparent effect is the opposite to mine – my mother is much less strict about lollies than we are!

  13. angharad – yea my mum is less strict with my daughter than she was with me, but its still made me wonder a few times if I’m just too slack! But happily as she gets older my daughter’s eating habits are getting healthier. I find it much easier as I can explain better why she should eat more of certain foods and less of others. And I her childcare is doing its share of brainwashing/education which helps as well.
    btw I suspect that the smh article distorts the research a bit. They had the lead (I think) researcher on The Drum tonight and what she said sounded a lot more nuanced and reasonable. For example the comment about using sweets (not food in general) as an incentive for overweight children was related to an implication to find other incentives rather than food for those children.
    And the TV comments were more related to excessive use of TV for young children (>2 hours/day for 5 and under). There was also a comment that when watching TV our reaction to being “full” is delayed so we tend to eat more.
    I am still really surprised about the finding of 30% of overweight children have TVs in the bedroom though. Because this is for children aged 5 and younger. They don’t give any stats for children generally rather than just overweight ones (the study is in a journal which required paid access), but I personally don’t know any families at all where they have allowed their children to have TVs in their bedroom at age 5.

  14. I’m going to take an “out there” side in all this. The treats parents give their kids is not a cause of obesity. But there are way more fat people, not just kids, than there were a couple of generations ago, at least in the US. (I’m not familiar with the stats for Australia.) When coffin-makers are having to up-size their coffins to never before seen large dimensions, it’s more than a matter of changing measuring methods. The obesity epidemic is real.
    It really is an epidemic, i.e. a population-level effect with population-level causes. The causes are not greed, sloth, will power (lack of), or genetics. People have always had those; they haven’t changed in the last 30 years or so.
    Two things have changed, both in the last 30 years or so. Endocrine disruptor pollution, which is everywhere in food and water, and which, in the more susceptible part of a population, mis-regulates fat deposition. The second is fast food advertising. It’s gotten very effective, and, again, it’s going to affect whatever part of the population is susceptible.
    It may not affect you, but that’s not the point. It’s like a smallpox epidemic. Those didn’t get everybody either. It got susceptible people, and the solution was not individual actions like avoiding smallpox patients. The solution to population-level problems is at the same level. For smallpox it was vaccination.
    For obesity, a start would be making fast food ads as illegal as cigarette ads, and reforming all agricultural and industrial processes that end up disrupting endocrine regulation.
    For some reason, the phrase “Good luck with that” pops into my mind.
    Maybe that’s why people keep hoping diets and giving kids healthy carrot snacks will be enough.

  15. @Mindy – the feeling of need for certain foods when you feel down must come from somewhere. I suspect it is partly taught and partly biological. So, if I feel down because my happy hormone or blood-sugar level is low then I will want a pick-me-up (Tiramisu!!). Feeling like having a treat when someone or something upsets you is probably learned behaviour. My daughter tried it on me a couple of times, I resisted giving her the treat and she stopped doing it. With my little ones cuddles and stories have worked pretty well instead.
    My brother had a really stressful adolescence and developed a habit of going to the fridge to feel better. His adulthood has been similarly hard and so he has had to work hard to resist comfort eating.

  16. No, quixote, it’s really not an epidemic, which is “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time”. It’s not even an epidemic if you take the broader and less accurate definitions that don’t include the “infectious disease” component – because BMI above an arbitrary cutoff is not a disease. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that late twentieth-century increases in average body mass in certain countries have levelled off in the twenty-first century.

  17. I’m with Lauredhel – normal human variation, by and large, is not a disease state.
    However, I’d say where it starts getting problematic is when normal human variation is turned into a “disorder” – for example, when being in the top quintile weight range for your height on a long-term basis becomes pathologised as “obesity”. Where being outside the “normal” weight range becomes a “condition” requiring “treatment”.
    It becomes even more problematic when the “treatment” which is sold “recommended” is one which is known not to work for 90% of users in the short term, and for 95% of users in the long term. The problem level reaches epidemic proportions when this particular “treatment” becomes the mainstay of a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide.
    I’m not quite sure what to call it when the people behind said multi-billion dollar industry work to manipulate the principal measuring tool used to classify whether or not people have the “condition” they’re selling a “treatment” for in order to increase the number of people who have the “condition” – my personal preference is to start with labels like “criminal fraud” and work on up from there (but then, I’m somewhat prejudiced against the weight-loss diet industry in the first place).
    I will point out this: one of the known failure conditions of chronic weight-loss dieting is permanent weight gain. So I suspect a lot of people who are now “obese” or “morbidly obese” are people who have dieted themselves there. I know I’m one of them (I gave up when I realised I’d approximately doubled my body weight over the course of ten years of weight-loss dieting).

  18. Yes, one thing I’d love to know, given that yo-yo dieting (the most common form) is associated with various health risks, is whether the apparent increased mortality among people classified as obese, might actually be increased mortality of who’s spent the most time dieting.
    (It’s worth noting that we don’t recommend people give up smoking because non-smokers have lower mortality than smokers, but because ex-smokers have lower mortality than smokers. And there are simply not enough “ex-obese” to figure out how their mortality compares.)

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