Sweet nothings: Should parents ditch the treats altogether?
New research shows that adults are relying on goodies as rewards far too frequently, writes Tanya Sweeney. But is there a better way?
Parenting is tough enough without having a few treats to hand to sweeten the deal. Even Kim Kardashian knows too well the power of a sugar rush as a parent: when her eldest daughter turned six earlier in June, North West was thrown a Candy Land-themed party so extravagant that Willy Wonka's factory paled in comparison.
Coming into Halloween and Christmas, Irish kids have dreams of being similarly immersed in waves of chocolate, jellybeans and lollies. And new research revealed this week that sweet treats are no longer… well, treats.
In fact, crisps, sweets and chocolate now make up a fifth of the average Irish child's diet. The study, led by UCD, revealed that more than 42pc of parents say they give children sweets to reward good behaviour, and the same number again says they do so simply because their children asked for them. Almost 29pc of parents say they do it to make their children feel better.
"The research confirmed a trend we were aware of," notes Sarah O'Brien, national lead for the Start campaign, an initiative led by the HSE and Healthy Ireland. "We also know that while one in 10 parents give treats to their children rarely, most parents are very aware of the things that they need to do to make changes in their homes. Still, they find it very challenging to put those changes into effect."
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
And no wonder: every supermarket shelf, shop and petrol station is filled with the sweet stuff that kids crave. In Ireland, too, parents need to work against an ingrained culture of treating and socialising, where cakes, sweets and biscuits are usually front and centre.
Parenting blogger and Corkonian Eimear Varian Barry is mindful of the sugar intake of her three children Saoirse (5), Harper (3) and Lennon (1).
"I give a digestive biscuit after dinner sometimes, and I don't mind the odd few chocolate buttons - I'm not a party pooper," she says. "Plus, you're talking to a girl who can down a whole packet of Hob Nobs. But we know sugar is bad, so it's about balance. I'm educated enough about the dangers of sugar, but children don't have a clue.
"In our house, we reward good behaviour with an episode of Paw Patrol. The kids are constantly talking about sweets, but I just say, 'You're not getting them'. What am I going to do, give them sweets because they're crying?"
Jolene Cox, AKA One Yummy Mummy has recently published her first cookbook, Family Food Made Easy. She's a big believer in everything in moderation when it comes to her daughter Lily-Mae (6).
"It's better to reward with things like time spent together," she says. "The emphasis we put on 'good' and 'bad' foods can often be really misleading. Instead, I'm a big believer in cooking together and making healthy home bakes.
We've had a conversation about why we aren't encouraged to eat sweet treats every day, because they damage our teeth and are not good for our bodies. For special occasions like sleepovers, I wouldn't have a problem with treats, but when it's every day or part of your snack intake, that's not ideal.
"We also have to be realistic though," she adds. "You don't want your child singled out. I've been at parties, and the kids hoovering up the sweets are the ones that have been denied them in the house."
As a mum to three children under 11, parent coach Aoife Lee knows all too well the might of pester power.
"Treats are an easy out, to be honest with you," she says. "It's a quick fix, but you have to look at the long term. If kids start to understand from an early age that they gain a bribe if they behave in a certain way, that will turn into a situation where children will work it to their advantage, and it will turn into a control thing."
Working alongside several hardworking parents, Lee notes that many parents who spend long hours at the office offer treats because they want the small amount of quality time they enjoy to be fun.
"One big concern that parents have is feeling guilty, and often they indulge their kids in treats and gifts because of it," she observes. "You see the kids' level of expectations rise, but if you limit rewards and treats, kids value them more. You're essentially going to undermine your own parenting skill-set if you're offering treats."
Many nutritionists suggest exercising caution around the language used around food when it comes to children: associating food with reward, for instance, is an unhelpful association that, if brought into adulthood, can prove problematic.
"What's important for a healthy relationship with food is to move away from the concept of treats," says Maeve Hannon, dietitian with Orla Walsh Nutrition.
"Focus on the positive health messages, like 'eating the rainbow' and getting lots of fruit and vegetables into the diet. Also, be neutral about food: if you're asking whether a child would like an apple or a biscuit, don't make it into a bigger thing than it is. Don't be strict with your child: if they do overindulge, simply say, 'How does your tummy feel after that? Maybe that's something we shouldn't do too often?'"
Looking at the overall diet, including sugar and fat intake at main meals, is a good place to start a sweet treat U-turn.
"Getting kids involved in food prep is a great way to make them feel ownership over what they eat," notes Hannon. "Make faces out of fruit, create little flapjacks, or make porridge bread with a little mashed banana."
Much like Cox, Lee suggests offering non-food rewards to kids as a way to incentivise good behaviour.
"Kids love attention, both positive and negative, and when you create quality, one-on-one time, they adore it," Lee says.
"It could be as simple as asking them what story they'd like read at bedtime, or what they'd like to do with a free hour at the weekend.
"And if you have created a rule or expectation around no sweets, you really need to persevere and follow through on it," she adds.
It can often help to band together with fellow parents in social circles, classes or after-school activity groups, so that everyone is delivering the same consistently healthy message.
"One parent I met recently would have a weekly get-together with other mums and their kids, and she mentioned that the parents were getting into the habit of bringing cupcakes and sweets," says Lee.
"I suggested that she have a conversation about changing that, and it turned out that everyone was on the exact same page."
As to what to do if sweet treats are already ingrained in family life: "Simply make a small change. Instead of giving out something sweet three or four times a day, cut it back to once a day, then over time, move that back to two or three times a week," suggests O'Brien.
"And be sure to recognise when you're doing well and when your children are doing well. Take the time to acknowledge your efforts, and if there's a slip or a special occasion like a birthday during the week, just pick up and start again."