Is it OK to Bribe my Child with Food?

This website even discourages owners from bribing their dogs...we have got a long way to go!

This image comes from this website which even discourages owners from bribing their dogs! Hmm, we have got a long way to go!

It’s so tempting, and we’ve all been there, seconds away from “If you do that…I’ll buy you a nice ice-cream!” which can then sometimes lead to “If you do that ONE MORE time I won’t buy you that ice-cream!” and then deteriorate to a yelled; “That’s it! I warned you, no ice-cream for you!”

As a race the majority of us are getting fatter, the majority of us eat way more than we need to and the majority of us have an unhealthy love/hate relationship with food and our bodies. Society is permeated with anorexic looking models and ‘perfect’ athletic bodies yet the cheapest, easiest food to get is junk food, trashy food (that may even give the appearance of being ‘healthy’ but it isn’t). Our own relationship with food started at the breast or bottle and then became established during our early years. Some of these habits may be healthy, some not, but old habits die very, very hard. It is with this backdrop that I’ve formulated my (strong) opinions on using food as a bribe for kids.

Food is a really easy tool to pick when attempting to control your child’s behaviour. It’s readily available physically and often the quickest item that springs to mind when you want to get your child to do or to stop doing something. I never (ever) bribe my children with food…here is why:

Food should be a Given, not a Reward

I don’t ever want my children to feel that if they behave in certain ways they will be be denied food. Food is necessary for survival and I don’t want the threat of it being removed –because of something they say or do – ever entering their minds (even if it’s trash food, but why would you choose to feed your child trash as a reward? But that’s another story!!). Can anyone else see how twisted it is to threaten to not feed their child something if they are naughty? Why is food even brought into the equation?

Food is Food: Not An Activity

I grew like so many others, believing in good food and bad food. I grew up believing that if I was depressed I should cheer myself up with an oversized bar of chocolate, I believed that bingeing on junk food at the weekend was inherent to enjoying a weekend activity (DVD, movie, whatever). I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that food (in particular junk) is inherent to a good time or linked, in this case to Good Behaviour. What happened to the concept eating as a means to satisfy a hunger pang? I feel that we have moved so far away from this, eating has become ‘eating to lose weight’ ‘eating to enjoy an occasion’ ‘eating to reward ourselves’. By bribing our children with food we are teaching them to reward themselves for good behaviour by stuffing something in their mouths,  creating a lifelong habit that will be hard to shake. And don’t we know it?

Food is for satisfying an appetite, activities are for enjoying in themselves and rewards don’t belong in the belly: we aren’t dogs! 

Food Focus

Let’s shift the focus away from food in this food obsessed, weight and image obsessed, eating disordered society. Let’s take food out of the equation whenever we can. Yeah, I know food is inherent to many cultural celebrations, but celebrating an occasion with food is very different to bribing a child to get them to do something when otherwise, that item of food would have had no place within that day. Why bring food into matters and scenarios where it doesn’t belong? If you can get your kid to tidy their room without promising to fill their bellies with something (again, usually junky or trashy WHY??) then you need to re-evaluate your discipline/reward system.

Other Bribes

The concept of ‘bribing’ a child to get them to do something I’ll admit makes me feel slightly ethically uncertain, but sometimes alternatives are limited. It is a fact of human nature that bribes are a tempting means of exerting control over another individual. Why can’t they just be good for good’s sake? Why can’t they just tidy their room to make me happy and stop me nagging them? Well, sometimes they just need a push. So how I do bribe my kids? If there is something huge that I want my kids to do, rather than going to the shops to buy a food treat, I’ll buy them a small toy or new piece of clothing as a reward. I bribe them with an activity that I know they want to do ‘if you do this then we can go to the park’, or better still, ‘you can choose what activity we do next’. If your kids don’t value your non-food related bribes then there is serious work to be done! This means they have already established a pattern of seeing reward as food related.

As you can see, I feel very strongly about using food as a bribe, but this is my opinion and it is not based on a specific evidence base, nor do I have any peer refereed articles to hand to back up my arguments. There may be some out there but I haven’t looked for them. These points are based on my gut instinct and reflections over the years. What do you think? You are welcome to agree or disagree with me!  

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