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  • Dina Cohen

You Naughty Kittens! You Shall Have No Pie

Have you ever stopped to think about the lyrics of some popular nursery rhymes? Some of them are really quite odd. You may not want to think too hard about "Rockabye Baby" and "Ring Around the Rosie", for example!

The other day, my daugher was listening to "Three Little Kittens" and when she heard the line, "Lost your mittens? You naughty kittens! You shall have no pie!", she was mystified. "What does that have to do with it?" she asked.

Indeed. What does not getting any pie have to do with losing mittens? Maybe they need mitten clips! Maybe they need to learn responsibility! But not getting any pie? Not particularly advisable. They might think, "Mommy Cat is mean," and perhaps also, "Bad kitties don't deserve treats." But taking away their pie doesn't teach them how to hang on to their mittens.

Regularly using food as a reward or punishment is not recommended for several reasons. Here are my top two pet peeves around this issue:

1) It can teach a child to expect a treat for doing something "good" or even for expected behavior. "I cleaned up my toys - where's my treat?" It can take away a child's natural motivation to do something good because it feels good. It might be hard, but feels good to be responsible. It feels good to make a room look neat. It feels good to do someone a favor. It feels good to do well on a test.

What it doesn't do is teach the child how to correct misbehavior. If a child is hitting or being rude, taking away a treat doesn't teach the child how to appropriately express his needs. It misses the boat.

2) Using treats as a reward or punishment creates increased preoccupation around these foods. It makes them into a "thing." This can pave the way for an emotionally-charged relationship with food which can last far into the future. This child may become an adult who thinks, "I had a hard day at work and so I deserve this donut," or, "I was so bad and therefore I don't deserve dessert." (Have the donut if you want the donut and don't have it if you don't want it, but deserving has nothing to do with it! You don't have to deserve delicious food.)

In essence, using food in an effort to shape a young person's behavior is not a good plan.

But...if this is something you do, please don't despair just yet. Notice that I wrote, "Regularly using food as a reward or punishment is not recommended." It's what you do most of the time, not some of the time, that really matters. If you gave your child a lollipop to keep him quiet, you haven't ruined his relationship with food. If you threatened to take away your daughter's ice cream if she didn't stop yelling at the ice cream store, you haven't doomed her to a life of self-denial. If you have been using these methods on a regular basis, we do suggest you explore other means to address your child's behavior.

This is similar to our stance on adults using food to address emotional needs. If you eat when you are sad/mad/lonely/overwhelmed, etc., that doesn't necessarily mean you have a problem with emotional eating. If you also have other ways to cope (such as calling a friend, going on a walk, journaling, problem-solving, distracting yourself with something funny, and so on) and eating is just one out of many things you can do to help you through a tough time, it's not pathological. But if eating is the only way you know how to get through a challenging emotion, then that's problematic.

Try building your repertoire of parenting skills and techniques so that you have other tools in your arsenal aside from providing or confiscating treats. Then you can all enjoy some pie together.

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