3 Steps to Stop Bribing your Kids with Food
Updated: Jan 9
I got a message from a friend of mine, an active outdoorsy mama, with 2 young kiddos she’s taken up to the ski hill in cold winter temps:
He is a treat kid and we want him to go, but we always have to bribe him. Like if he goes for 30 mins, then we will go in and have hot chocolate or something
It’s awful, I feel! HELP
Either the bribe has been working too well and you have to bribe with treats to get anything done or the bribe has lost its novelty and stopped working. Now nothing gets done without a struggle. Or in my friend’s case, it just didn't feel right to her, it wasn't how she wanted to do things anymore.
This is the nature of a bribe. Your child is doing it [whatever you want] to get the treat not because they have their own internal motivation to do it. That only lasts so long before your kids are on to you, and they stop performing to get the bribe.
You aren’t alone though. Every parent has done this at some time or another. Myself included.
These examples might sound familiar:
Good report card? pizza or ice cream!
Skin your knee? popsicle or a lollipop!
Eat your broccoli or clean your plate? get dessert!
Reflect for a moment - think back to how you grew up. Did you get “treats” for things you did? Or get offered treats for things you didn’t want to do? Were you rewarded or coerced with food?
But you turned out ok, right? Or did you?
Let’s examine how this childhood practice can affect your relationship with food as an adult. As an adult it’s easy to reward ourselves with food - after a long week of work, or a difficult conversation. It’s common for people to feel they are “good” when restricting their diet because they didn't make it to the gym that day. This encompasses the entire concept of a cheat meal - restrict food today so there can be a reward with food later on.
This all perpetuates the reward or denial of food based on something done or not done. This ultimately harms our relationship with food. The harm comes from using external factors to guide intake as opposed to internal cues from your body about what is needed or desired.
Acting in this way is not inherently bad, abnormal or unhealthy. But it often happens on an unconscious level - without any active choice on your part. It happens because you are used to it, you’ve done this before without much thought. What we all desire is to make a more conscious food choice because that is what our body needs in that moment and then we move on with the rest of our day. Food is very comforting and that’s why we use it when life gets hard, and we can actually make peace with that. We can also find other ways to cope that don’t involve rewarding or punishing ourselves with food.
So what can my friend do to begin to break this cycle of food bribery for her family?
Step 1: Food Neutrality: Stop referring to food as treats (or desserts), junk, crap, good, bad, healthy, unhealthy or cheat meals. Call foods by their real name: hot chocolate, ice cream, broccoli, bread or candy. If we truly believe all foods fit then put all foods on a level playing field, without moral judgement getting in the way of our choice. Sometimes you have hot chocolate and sometimes a veggie platter with dip, the end.
If this first step is difficult you can also try referring to non-food items as treats - extra back rub & cuddle with mom or dad, 1 more book at bedtime, 5 minutes longer for screen time, you can be the squirter of the bubble bath tonight. These activities are enjoyable too and can help you and your kids to have a bigger toolbox of coping mechanisms when things are really great and when someone needs a little TLC, including yourself.
Step 2: Communicate: First agree with your spouse that this is something you’d like to work on in your house. Then if you think your kids will understand, tell your kids. Tell them you don’t want to bribe/offer treats/food rewards for doing things that are already expected in your family. You also won’t be withholding treats for not doing things. Yep, that means if the family is having dessert tonight and 1 child did not clean their plate, there’s still dessert for them. Remind everyone that of course you will still have food treats often because it’s a part of a meal or a snack or because you feel like it, but not because you did something you were supposed to anyway.
A friendly heads up from a fellow mom: If this is new for your family, you can expect this to get worse before it gets better. There can be increased requests for treats after doing something they used to get a treat for.
Here are some phrases you can confidently use to help through this transition period:
-Yes, we will have hot chocolate again soon (it’s like nodding your head yes, but your actually saying no)
-There is no dessert planned tonight, but we will have dessert later this week. Should we put it on the menu board? For what meal? (Let them choose between 2 options you have on hand)
-I know we normally stop for ice cream after swimming, but we aren’t stopping for ice cream today, I have a snack planned for when we get home.
Step 3: Listen: What is your child trying to tell you? What is difficult about what you are asking them to do - that you feel you need to bribe them? Is there a way you can meet them where they are? Can you ‘reduce your ask’ into something that feels more manageable for them?
Be curious here. Ask them what you can do to make things easier or more manageable. Make it a brainstorm, treats might come up and that’s ok, but what else is there? You might even want to make a mental list of works for your family and what feels good to both kids and parents.
You can’t escape using food as a reward, comfort or celebration and that’s not the goal. The goal is to add to our repertoire of coping mechanisms so we can draw on the perfect one when we need it.
So what happened with my friend? Did she ever get to go skiing without needing to make hot chocolate after? Here’s a follow up message from her:
Win! I did reduce my ask and had him on the smaller part of the mountain vs him going on the chairlift and going with me with his harness. He was a different kid, happy, excited and it was a successful 2 hours!
He did automatically associate “how many runs” to “when can I get French fries”. We didn’t talk about food, or anything but when it was time to go in we had our lunch. Before it would be a huge bribe.
This shift away from using food as a bribe is an awesome shift to make for yourself and your family! Remember that nothing changes overnight and you may go in and out of making changes. That’s no problem, it's progress. Experiment and be interested if these changes improve your feeding environment over time.
Send me a quick message if you have any questions or you’d like to report how this worked for your family.