Why do you give your children treats? New research reveals the reasons

Ten tips from Start campaign to help parents swim against tide of Ireland’s treating culture

Research shows a ‘treating culture’ has emerged in Ireland and that ‘because treating is such a norm it is almost impossible to swim against the tide of treats, and stand up and say no to treats’. Photograph: iStock

Research shows a ‘treating culture’ has emerged in Ireland and that ‘because treating is such a norm it is almost impossible to swim against the tide of treats, and stand up and say no to treats’. Photograph: iStock

 

Health authorities are launching a five-year campaign to help parents battle Ireland’s “extremely challenging” culture of habitually giving children treats.

Research shows foods high in sugar, fat and salt with little nutrition – the likes of crisps, sweets and chocolate – make up a fifth of the average Irish child’s diet.

Fresh studies, led by University College Dublin, now shed more light on the reasons behind growing trend.

More than four in 10 (42 per cent) parents say they give children treats to reward good behaviour, and the same number again says they do so simply because their children asked for them.

Almost three in 10 parents (29 per cent) say they do it to make their children feel better.

Parents surveyed for the research also complained about treats being “unavoidable” in modern Ireland, their integral part of celebrations and occasions, a culture of post-activity snacking and the role of supermarkets in pushing unhealthy foods.

The likes of biscuits, crisps, chocolate and sweets are the second-most consumed food group by children and almost a quarter of all meals now include food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar.

In an attempt to help parents resist incessant pressure to give their children treats, the State’s food safety watchdog Safefood, the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Government-led Healthy Ireland initiative are launching the Start campaign.

Dr Aileen McGloin, Safefood’s director of marketing and communications, said it is in response to a “ubiquitous treating environment” that has developed in Ireland.

“We’ve known for quite a while that treats make up large proportion of children’s diets – about 20 per cent . . . what we didn’t really know until this research was why parents give children treats,” she said.

“Everywhere a parent goes they nearly find treats unavoidable . . . if they go to pay for petrol they have to lean over a sea of confectionery, if they go into a supermarket they’re bombarded with special offers, if they go into someone else’s house their child is almost guaranteed to be offered a treat.

“So they find this extremely challenging.”

McGloin said the research shows a “treating culture” has emerged in Ireland and that “because treating is such a norm it is almost impossible to swim against the tide of treats, and stand up and say no to treats.”

“Parents really have to be heroes to do this,” she told RTÉ radio.

The Start campaign includes tips for families to achieve “one daily win” in fighting the pressure to give children unhealthy foods lacking nutrition, including advice on how to deal with social norms, constant availability of treats, price promotions and routine treating.

Peadar Maxwell, a psychologist with the HSE, said parents have “so much power” to influence their children’s health and snacking habits.

“Practical steps include having less treats available in your home and offering healthier snacks, which makes it so much easier to bridge that gap between wanting to be a hero and feeling we have to give in,” he said.

“Shifting rewards for good behaviour from food treats to praise, a hug or a game, and giving attention to our children when they choose healthy snacks, all help too.

“It never helps when we beat ourselves up, so if you do give in, don’t despair.

“Instead, reflect on what happened and decide what you can change for the next time. It’s really important to stay positive and if treats are a long-term habit, it may require patience for healthy snacking to become the norm.”

Parents can get advice on the campaign’s website www.makeastart.ie

Here are 10 steps from the Start campaign to help in cutting back on treats:

1. Start to become aware that treats are everywhere.

2. Cutting back on treats can be really challenging and no parent wants to say no. But in these situations, our kids need to be protected. So be a hero and say no.

3. Start with a plan and try to stick with it. See what works for your situation and get your family to agree to it. Everybody has be in this together for it to work.

4. There will be difficult times – the Start campaign has answers for lots of questions about help with saying no to treats.

5. You can also speak to others around you for help and support. Agree a behaviour contract with family, creche and childminders.

6. Avoid triggers for treats, whether that’s when shopping or at home.

7. Accept you’ll have bad days. Set realistic goals and focus on those days that went well.

8. Give real treats such as healthy snacks or non-food rewards, not treat foods.

9. Keep an eye on how you are doing and plan your weekly shop to avoid treats.

10. Celebrate success. When you achieve your goal, no matter how big or small, take a moment to appreciate what you have achieved.