Yes, training. Not unlike training your dog. Training goes on every day; most of the time we’re not aware of it. We train our spouse, our kids, even our employer…and they train us. There’s so much to say about the process, but since this is the second part of a post on getting kids to eat healthy foods, I’ll keep my comments narrower.

Here are a few examples of what our own behaviors are training our kids to do.

I hear parents complain that their kids will only eat fast food. That’s very interesting, because children are not born with a “must have McDonald’s” gene. Someone must take them there and buy them something and teach them to eat it. And if that’s done enough times — because it requires multiple visits to establish a habit like that — they will like it and want it…and yes, may claim to want nothing else. And a parent, wanting to avoid a fight, may oblige them. Children know how to be persistent when they know their persistence will be rewarded. The parent is rewarded with happy kids, freedom from food preparation and perhaps even a “treat” for themselves. So the cycle continues and the food attraction strengthens even more.

This applies to much more than a trip to a burger joint. This type of learning happens with all sorts of foods. If you set up a contingency that a certain food is a punishment (“eat all your broccoli…”) and then use an addictive, sugar-laden food as a reward (“…and then you’ll get dessert”), the message is that healthy food is a negative that you’re enduring only to get to your sweet reward. It may seem like an effective way of getting your kids to eat foods you deem less-favorable, and in fact, it IS effective. The high sugar/fat aspect of most desserts makes them highly palatable and very powerful as rewards. However, you are setting up a food association that your kids will take with them through life if you don’t take steps to break it while they’re young.

Because I cannot, with a clear conscience, suggest that you really do this to your children, here’s a virtual experiment for you to try: imagine that every time you go to the store with your kids, you offer them snacks on the way home. Be consistent. Then, after a month or so of that, stop offering. What do you think will happen? They’ll ask for something to eat. They may even get upset if there’s nothing available. Their bodies are primed for food in that situation (“car following shopping”) because you’ve trained them to expect food.

Now, that may not sound earth-shattering to you, but consider that we do that sort of training every day and in a variety of different contexts. We send them messages in seemingly innocent ways. We bombard our kids with those kinds of contingencies. We teach them to overeat during holidays. We train them to eat a lot at buffets (“so that we get our money’s worth”). We buy them buckets of popcorn at movie theaters. And while years ago outings like that used to be held for special occasions, they’ve become commonplace as they’ve become more and more accessible, and that means more opportunities for indulgences and less time spent cooking meals at home. So the stakes have changed over the past two or three decades.

The bottom line is that our actions can carry long-reaching consequences. NO PARENT IS PERFECT, nor should they obsess about being so. I’m not trying to make you neurotic about your kids. Note that in the cases above, I’m talking about repetition, not rare instances. As I mentioned in my previous post, repeated offerings of good foods work in the same way. Unfortunately, many adults who are struggling with food issues themselves will reinforce consumption of less healthy foods in their kids. Please think about the messages that you’re sending and the way in which you yourself might be shaping a behavior in your child that will end up troublesome later on.

This simply brushes the surface. There is still so much to be said about the basics of training, food associations, persistence, negative effects of guilt and more. But those are topics for another day…

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