Without knowing a specific family’s relationship to food, this question might be tough to get too specific on. I will assume that by “food” you mean the more tasty and sweet foods that most healthy people would hope to avoid consuming too much of at once.

I tend to advise parents to use a basic behavioral perspective when choosing a discipline strategy. We should look at our children as functioning with a similar “what happens when I do this?’ style of learning. The things we condone or prohibit in the home will shape the way our child acts around the family and how they make choices later in life when we can’t be there to supervise them.

Assuming as a parent we are providing the basic foundation for health with our established meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) then a treat as a reward can be a useful tool when it is not already a normal part of the child’s routine. Sadly for some, we are living in a consumer culture, and parents are less likely to monitor everything their children are doing and eating.

Any reward must be an outlier to the norm, same as the consequence for a behavior we would want to eliminate. Restricting food can be an effective consequence, and skipping a meal or missing a snack is an appropriate consequence if the issue is related and timely. Withholding food would not be appropriate if it lasted more than one meal or was an unrelated incident. Depending on the behavior we seek to reward, a child old enough to make a choice for where they want to eat would be a good reward for any behavior, for younger children, parents can utilize their judgment on a healthy reward that might also seem worthwhile for the toddler aged child.

A younger child might do better with an activity-based reward than a food reward, and that might work out better for the parent as well. For teens and school aged children, they are already established with routines and habits. For them, freedom of choice is important. If they have a special treat they like and don’t get often, that could work. If you want to reward your child for something long-term, then establish the standard and reward ahead of time.

Let them work for what they want, and make sure to come through as promised. That will build in work ethic to your discipline strategy. An ice cream party for something unexpected sounds great at any age; we just don’t want rewards to lose their effectiveness through overindulgence. Love and Logic parenting education would say that a reward or consequence should fit the action.

If you want to reward your child for not wetting the bed, and we are facilitating them to do so, then a reward could be picking out some cool kids undies or a new sheet set with their favorite characters. The same goes for food, but if we use foods, usually the moment is short and sweet. Finding rewards that are more logical and pro-active might be better options.

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Author of I’m Sorry, You are Not a Pick-Up Artist and

I wrote this article for cafemom.com about parents using food as a reward for good behavior. I did not make the final article, you can read it here

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