Food: A Passing Discipline or Lifelong Punishment?

It’s something we don’t think about: using food to teach proper behavior. I doubt there are many parents out there who haven’t bribed or disciplined their children with food. Growing up, how many times were you rewarded with ice cream for good behavior? How many times were you denied dessert for bad behavior? Parents reinforce behavior by disciplining and rewarding children with food.  

However, disciplining with food is dangerous in terms of biology and psychology. Mammals—and thus humans—are programmed to eat as much as possible whenever possible to ensure survival.

“Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured.”Life of Pi

The difference is that humans don’t live in the wild where food is scare. Most humans live in a society where food is abundant and at our disposal at any period of time. Therefore, threatening food security is psychologically dangerous in terms of overeating. For example, disciplining a child by sending them to bed without dinner is not a temporary discipline, but a long-term psychological punishment. The child could potentially binge the next morning to compensate for their food source being threatened, leading to unhealthy eating patterns.

Unfortunately, using food to teach behavior and discipline children is modeled throughout our society in multiple ways.

Food as Punishment Examples

Due to the biology and psychology of humans, parents should refrain from disciplining their children with food. However inconsequential it may seem, there are long-term—and potentially lifelong—consequences from this behavior.