“I fell into the trap of rewarding with food”

‘It was entirely a problem of my own creation. And what was more, I knew as soon as the words were out of my mouth that I’d made a mistake.’ Laura Milne, Health Features Editor at The Express talks to us about falling into the ‘reward culture’ with her children.


‘But anyone who has had the unenviable task of potty training twin toddlers will understand that bribery is one of the few weapons in an exhausted parent’s arsenal that actually seems to work.

In my case, my twins were over three and I had already endured four months of cleaning poo either off the floor or out of pants before I uttered the words: ‘You can have a chocolate button if you do a poo in the toilet’.

Oh, it worked like a charm at first. They loved this reward system and would craftily bargain for another treat if they managed a second or third productive toilet trip. Before I knew it, a complicated points system had been devised with different levels of confectionary-based incentives. But it wasn’t until I tried to stop doling out chocolates that I really understood they had me over a barrel. ‘What can I get for doing a poo?’ my daughter would bark at me. And of course, as soon as I tried to play hardball and withdrew the chocs, they went straight back to pooping on the floor.

But aside from the sense of impotent outrage at being outwitted by a pair of pint-sized gangsters, I knew there was a bigger issue at stake here. I spend a lot of time trying to encourage healthy eating habits in my children – so what kind of message am I sending them by rewarding good behaviour with food? What’s more, by labelling chocolates, ice creams and biscuits as ‘treats’ am I not merely reinforcing their desirability?

It has become such a fundamental part of our culture to use food as a way of rewarding ourselves or others – rather than just regarding it as fuel that gives our bodies energy and helps us grow. ‘Eat up all your dinner and you can have a dessert’, ‘If you are good, you can have an ice cream’ or ‘if you don’t behave, there won’t be any cake’ are phrases most of us are familiar with from childhood. Is it any wonder then that those messages shape our relationship with food when we become adults and we’re still using any old excuse to treat ourselves because we’ve had a hard day at the office or it’s someone’s birthday or because we’ve had a row with out partner or whatever?

But once that association has taken hold, it is a tough challenge to try and break it. Even when I decided that I was going to stop using food as a reward mechanism for good behaviour at home, the pitfalls were everywhere. The number of situations in which food (usually high-fat, sugary ones) were offered as a reward for often not doing very much was staggering. My children have been given an assortment of lollies, sweets and biscuits in the chemists (for waiting in line nicely), shoe shops (for having their feet measured), cafes (even when we’ve only ordered a cup of milk), not to mention at friends and relatives houses (usually as a bribe to keep them quiet in front of the TV). Sometimes it’s easy to quickly say no thanks – but often it involves having an awkward conversation in which you feel as if you cast in the role of the ‘no fun food police’.

So I’ve decided that it is pointless trying to ban every offer that comes our way – it just creates resentment and enhances the desire for whatever that treat is. Also facing down the rage of a three-year-old who desperately wants the lolly that the nice lady in the chemists is trying to offer him, takes a special kind of determination that some days I just don’t have the energy for. I’m not saying there hasn’t been resistance at home too but apart from a notable incidents, it hasn’t been as bad as I’d feared. Turns out they want my time, praise and encouragement just as much those coveted sweets. As for the potty training, it’s working a treat now (and not a chocolate one).’