As an adult, I am grateful that my ability to access food and the act of eating are not conditional based on my behavior, achievement, or doing what others want me to do. Yet, it is so easy for us as parents, to use food (and beverages) as a bargaining tool when it comes to our children and their behavior. Let’s think about this. Is it really fair to use food to either motivate and/or discourage certain behavior? Or worse yet, to punish our children by denying them what we know they want? I am going to go ahead and lay this all out in the open. If we really think about it, there are many reasons why we should reflect and honestly ask ourselves if we are in fact using sugar and other food items to bargain with our children each and every day. If so, what are the consequences this may have in our children as they develop an awareness for how they relate to food and the act of eating?
First, let me share honestly my own shortcomings when it comes to this type of bargaining. Claire will turn 7 this March. I think back to those early days, as early as when she was about 10 months old and sitting in that high chair as I fed her baby food and/or when she was able to pick up CheeriosTM and baby puffs. Surely I encouraged her to eat “one more bite” (see previous blog) or however many bites before I would let her out of the chair. After all, isn’t it every mother’s inalienable right to determine how much food her child should eat at any given meal or setting? or is it? Claire was extremely verbal and proficient in sign language after turning 1. If I think really hard, I know that once she was a toddler, and had been introduced to the taste for sweets like an OreoTM cookie, surely we have shown her a cookie and instilled upon her that she may have it after eating that “one more bite” or finishing her meal. I can still remember the American Sign Language hand sign for “cookie”.
Over the years, while I take pride in having a raised a daughter who eats most foods that we introduce her to, American and Asian, I have subconsciously behaved like perhaps most parents do. I know that ars I have repeatedly used bad food as a reward or incentive if she eats what I deem to be the “right food” or does what I would like her to do. For example, “you can have ice cream after you finish your piano practice”, or “you can have dessert/candy/chocolate if you finish everything on your plate”. This is not about me being a “Tiger Mom”, I am almost certain this is every mother unless they have been enlightened by some higher wisdom or power which have allowed them the clarity in why it is disadvantages to train our children to link food and eating, good things and bad, to behavior or worse, condition to feeling accepted or “good”.
Eating should be about making good choices and bad choices, and bad eating may be defined as a combination of eating at wrong times as well as eating meals or snacks composed mostly of bad choices or non-nutritious food items. We all know that the “bad” items are foods high in sugar, fat, starch, and fried foods. But the “bad” stuff taste so good!!! Not only do those items taste good to us, but our children learn so early on that they have special taste buds which give such euphoric feelings when “bad” foods, especially SUGAR containing substances and beverages, are eaten! They can’t help but want that repeated experience over and over, to the point of obsession! Hence, once started, our children can’t help themselves to seek sugar anytime, anywhere, whenever possible, almost never enough, just as we can’t help ourselves to use sugar as a bargaining tool.
In the past couple of years, I have had many deliberate conversations with Claire about what items contain processed sugar, why that is bad, and what ingestion of too much sugar may do the body such as increase risk of diabetes (non-insulin dependent or type II) and risk of developing obesity. I tell her that I understand why she loves sugar and let her know that her parents both have a sweet tooth. However, I acknowledge that it is much harder for her, being only a child, to rationalize the ills of sugar consumption as well as not naturally making conscious, logical, educated decisions when it comes to what she should choose if choices are given. It is only through practice that our children can learn to moderate their desires for sugar, and learn to deny exercising over-consumption of sugary items, whatever that amount is since it would be considered different in each family. When we go out to restaurants, at times we let her choose from the “Kids Menu” but often she simply shares what we order. It is not hard to notice that restaurant “Kids Menu” items are typically a variety of hotdog, grilled cheese, mac n’cheese, chicken nugget/strips, and pizza. Of course it comes with a beverage choice including soda, and dessert. Even if you asked for fries to be substituted with fruit, don’t forget the ice cream at the end. Shouldn’t we as adults and parents speak out loudly by saying “NO” to ordering these “Meals” for our children? If we teach them that those are poor choices, then there is hope that someday their children will not be consuming these meals high in calories, fat, and sugar. Of course, as a reader you may be saying to yourself, well, that’s what my child eats at home, so what are they to do at a restaurant? If that is true, then please consider reading my book. It’s never too late.
As a pediatric surgical subspecialist who sees up to 40 patients and their families in any given clinic day, I have witnessed the power of food and sugar. Whether it’s fruit snacks, crackers, or even candy, all these items may serve to accomplish any of the following: keeping the child momentarily away from my drawers of special “doctor” things and instruments, stressing the mechanics of our electric exam chair as they push the “up” and “down” button repeatedly, or simply stops them from crying, whining, or screaming during the coveted minutes spent with me after waiting the obligatory torturous period until I walk in. The evidence is often seen by the few Gold Fish crackers left behind on the exam room floor. I must admit, even though I proudly disappoint children by not giving any “suckers” and instead have a basket of “goodies” children can pick out on the way out of the office, we do have a secret stash of chocolates to reward and bribe those old enough to be verbal and whose cooperation I absolutely need to have, to safely and effectively perform ear exam/wax cleaning/foreign body removal under the microscope, or when I need to spray numbing medicine into the nostril and then pass a flexible spaghetti noodle camera inside their nose to see the size of their adenoid. I am the one who promise rewards of chocolates (pending no food allergies) if those procedures are necessary. I am holding myself accountable, and have vowed to think of new ways to encourage their cooperation, without sugar.
Dr. Julie Wei is a pediatric ear, nose, and throat specialist and the author of A Healthier Wei. As a mother herself, Dr. Wei is a passionate advocate for improving children's health through better diet and dietary habits. She has been committed to helping parents learn how to eliminate their child's ear, nose, and throat problems simply by reducing excessive sugar and dairy intake, as well as minimizing habitual late night snacking. She hopes to raise awareness for the need for accountability by both medical professionals and parents to ensure that children are not prescribed or take unnecessary medications long term.
When she is not in the clinic, operating room, or conducting research, you will find her in the kitchen preparing food with love along with her daughter Claire. If you sit next to her on the plane, she will likely share with you information about how to minimize choking hazards in young children, and many other tips for improving your child's health.