An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Are children always punished by rewards?

In parenting on January 4, 2012 at 10:47 am

Time to confess – I have an issue, like many parents, with getting my 5 year old daughter to eat properly. As parents we’re concerned she’s under weight. She has always been a poor eater taking very long to finish even half her plate and is very specific about what she eats. She doesn’t like milk with cereal for example nor does she like ketchup with chips! So this Christmas, we decided to experiment with points and charts. (magnetic princess chart available from Mothercare). She was in charge of giving herself 4 points a day for having breakfast, lunch, dinner and milk before bedtime. We didn’t insist she finishes her plate so long as we felt she ate her tummy’s full. At the end of the week she gets a reward which was a surprise she keenly looked forward to. (I took her to WH Smith to choose something. She chose Cinderella books) I also verbally rewarded her with expressions such as ‘mashallah’ (God has willed it) when she would finish eating. Outcome? Well, I must say her eating took structure and she looked forward to rewarding herself. I don’t intend to continue this point system in the long term but it has made me think about how parents can cultivate intrinsic motivation and how best to facilitate the journey from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation if one decides to take that route? Alfie Kohn raises the point of praising children verbally or rewarding them for doing good works can create in them an unhealthy dependance for approval.

In October 2011, I was fortunate to attend a spiritual retreat in Turkey. In a sohbet (spiritual discourse) between two outstanding spiritual teachers of our time, Kabir Dede and Shiekha Nur, it was mentioned how students (adults) often have a need for approval, sometimes unconscious, which the teacher will not give as it reinforces that aspect of the  lower nafs (ego). The teacher will however give love to the soul of his/her student.

Coming to think of it, I know many friends who would often do something clever or wise and expect praise in return. In a few cases their need for approval is self confessed. May be I seek it to some degree too? Having gone through an education system, unlike Shakespeare or Tagore, which uses quantitative labels to differentiate and later becoming a teacher in one, I certainly see Alfie Kohns point. The best of students are intrinsically motivated in the subject, even though some teachers teach to the test because of pressures they themselves are under to produce good results. However, this begs the question, can extrinsic motivation with its structure and a rewards create space for intrinsic motivation to grow?

  1. I was a picky eater. My famly says I used to say I was a drop of water, and drops of water don’t eat. My mother and grandmother used to remind me that I “never” ate. Apparently I ate enough to grow into adulthood, but not to satisfy what my parents thought I should eat.

    When I had children of my own, I remembered my experience. My then mother-in-law was also into letting children eat what they wanted. From personal experience, I know children do not starve themselves voluntarily. (I’m not talking about adolescents) If you offer healthy, nutricious food, the child will eat what she/he needs.

    My daughter ate whatever was in front of her. My son, as a child, ate very limited foods. We were vegetarians, he survived on a steady diet of spaghetti, cheese, tofu, cereal, fruit. In mid-childhood he added sushi to his possible foods. As an adult, he eats all kind of foods (still vegetarian), he cooks and loves trying out new food.

    My children liked (and still do) juice or tea with their cereal, mustard on waffles. My daughter was small for her age. Her growth curve was in the negative for her first two years of life. She was healthy, curious, playful, healthy. She was just small. Most growth curves are not made for Mexican kids. She eats well, is healthy and made it to adulthood.

    Throughout Grade school, there was a person who made ice cream at home and would sell it outside the school. School is out at 2pm in Mexico and you go home and have lunch then. My son had a serving of ice cream every day and then came home and had lunch. It never spoiled his appetite. When I was his age and would go out to lunch with my Dad (my parents were divorced), my Dad always allowed me to have dessert as an appetizer.

    My suggestion: don’t make food an issue, have good choices available. Your daughter will do just fine.

  2. There is some research out there somewhere (couldn’t give you the reference for it!) on children’s eating habits; all different kinds of food were laid out and children of various ages were allowed to eat whatever they wanted. After each meal the researchers carefully weighed every plate (even things dropped onto the floor) to work out how much of each dish was eaten, and they found that kids had a 4-day cycle: after four days of eating junk they naturally decided they wanted to eat healthier things. Thus certain families who let their kids eat ‘whatever’ and somehow they work their way back to the right stuff – as long as the right stuff is available, and the wrong stuff is less so.

    Re positive reinforcement, I find it works much better than threats/rewards but there are times when everything gets too much, chaos starts setting in and I have to play Mean Mama just in order to avoid physical harm or furniture getting broken. The thing is that there is always an emotional root to a child’s problems (and those of adults), and if I only have the time and support to get to the bottom of it, my son doesn’t start in on the tantrums or swinging around mops in the living room or squashing his little sister. Usually it takes too long to work out what the problem is rationally; hugging is much more time-effective.

  3. Many thanks Medina

  4. Let me be provocative here, and even introduce a note of levity into a topic which sometimes gets what I believe is over-attention.

    On the subject of motivating children to eat properly, I was astonished to read a recent article in the Daily Telegraph which concludes from some research that “Ideally, parents should place seven different items in six different colours on their children’s plates and whenever possible food should be arranged to form a picture.” Frankly, I found this absurd.

    Another recent newspaper article (also seen on TV) reports on the culinary art of Kyaraben (character lunchboxes for children) practised by competitive Japanese mothers, where rice balls, sushi, salad and fruit is shaped into cartoon characters like Hello Kitty or SpongeBobSquare Pants, or animals (see Apparently, a lunchbox prepared to the highest standard of artistry can take a whole morning to create.

    Perhaps I am the wrong person to comment on what strikes me as an extreme over-attention to the minutiae of food preferences, either to encourage children to eat or to compete with other parents in creating the best lunchboxes. For one thing, I went to a British boarding school for 11 years, and we just ate what we were given. If we did not, we went hungry. In any event, we had to wait until the holidays to get a good meal. Only the British would pay good money to send their children to Spartan schools where the cure for a mild cold was to go for a run in shorts in the snow, come back to a cold shower, and have a meal of overcooked leathery ox liver and watery cabbage for supper. And yet, children of my generation who grew up in the 50’s were apparently generally fitter than those who are growing up today, partly because they generally took much more exercise. It may be that the private school system helped them develop ‘stiff upper-lip’ qualities of stoicism, fortitude, patient endurance (sabr) and lack of self-absorption, which were regarded as marks of ‘character’ (a case where classic Britishness converges to some degree with one of the great Islamic virtues). The Duchess of Devonshire may be right in lamenting the demise of this virtue in modern Britain, which she says has become a “sloppy, sentimental culture of self-pity and self-esteem”. Along with that, we have the narcissistic “you’re worth it” culture of self-entitlement – the “Give Them What They Want” tyranny which is the motto of the store BRATZ, and sadly, applies not only to children but also to many adults (kidults) in our consumer culture.

    I agree that the best thing is not to make an issue about food. To do so can turn every mealtime into a nightmare clash of wills. The purpose of sitting around a table for a family meal is to socialise, converse, and enjoy each other’s company while enjoying a meal, not to undergo the repetitive tedium of cajoling children to eat this or that, making ultimatums, striking bargains, or pandering to every individual whim as part of the endless proliferation of ‘choice’. I have been astonished to learn that in many families in modern Britain, everybody eats something different, and often in different rooms. And how often does one hear parents asking their children what they would like at every meal?

    There is surely a difference between pandering and the true love which may often work best not by indulgence but by diverting attention from what are useless impediments. One of our nine grandchildren, aged 8, recently wrote to us saying how she was looking forward to coming to stay with us and concluded her letter by proudly writing in bold letters “I am no longer fussy”. On previous occasions when she visited we had never played into her fussiness about food. We had always said that we all eat the same thing, and despite her apprehension about what would be served up to her, it was never given any space for conversation at the table. If the conversation is interesting enough, children will often forget the ‘food issues’ and sooner or later if they are hungry they will eat what is offered. I should say that I do not serve up leathery ox liver and watery cabbage. I love cooking and produce very appetizing meals, although I do not arrange items of seven different colours into pictures.

    As for reward, I think the best reward is often an indirect one which arises naturally out of the lack of attention paid to fussy demands and preferences. My granddaughter gained the reward of realizing that the conversation at the table (and the whole process of socialisation) was much more interesting than her own fussiness. Her attention was diverted to something much more interesting, and she realized how boring fussiness is. In this case, intrinsic motivation arose not through an extrinsic reward such as heaps of praise for eating one or two peas, but through the realisation that a family meal is a much more enjoyable occasion if it is not monopolized by the solipsism of likes and dislikes. Diversion is often the key. Behaviour often changes most decisively by redirecting attention rather than by explanation or reasoning. Or it can be done by a simple rearrangement of circumstances. If someone wants to lose weight by eating less, the best way may not be to set up an elaborate regime of calorie counting, but simply to give them a smaller plate. In the same way, children may not be captivated by a tendentious ethical lecture on how half the world is starving and they ought to be thankful for whatever they are given.

    So, yes, children may be punished by the wrong kinds of rewards. But this is long enough – and I am hope my more assertive tone on this occasion has not raised too many eyebrows.

  5. Dear Jeremy,

    I thought Jackie Chan had it bad when he went to a Chinese Martial Arts School!

    As for the healthy eating theory, I find it puzzling! I’m not sure where they get the numbers from; 7 different items in 6 different colours 🙂 That would mean two items are the same colour! Is this designed to be some sort of (subconscious mind) trick?

    In some cultures, its suggested one shouldn’t talk while eating. So any conversation at the dinner table is kept to a minimum. I’m not sure if that’s to keep the kids quiet because I’ve seen the same adults have a good laugh at the dinner table when their friends or relatives are over for a meal. I’ve noticed my own daughter really enjoyed being given some responsibility during dinner time. As I’ve mentioned in my post on ‘soul and food’ I feel dinner time holds lots of opportunities to be explored. One example of how silence and mindfulness can be explored can be taken from our experience at retreats where we’re often asked to remain silent for roughly the first 10 min of lunch until somebody says Huuu…


  6. Thanks Medina,
    I find mixing fruits with some junk food seems to work! where fruit on its own doesn’t always. I like Jeremy’s experience of just being served food which he had to eat like it or not. Kids nowadays are too spoiled for choice. It wont be long before they’ll have their fav food prepared via a text message to the fridge- which will then email takeaway shops and local groceries with its requirements – they’ll look back at us and think ‘Poor chaps had to be sent to school!’.
    ps. I just had a kebab take-away despite food being cooked at home. My reason: it’s Friday and I’m a carnivore

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