If you are reading this post, you have probably spent time encouraging a child to eat. Maybe you are a parent, trying hard to help your child eat more at a mealtime. Or, maybe you are a feeding therapist trying to help a child with a limited diet add more foods to her list.
In both of these situations, we are doing our best to encourage children who are not yet competent eaters. We want to celebrate the good progress we are witnessing, without becoming pushy or pressuring a child. We all know that feeding a child is never just about “getting him to eat it.”
This blog post (along with the following blog post, part 2) explores how our responses to a child’s actions may influence their relationship with food and mealtimes. We never want children to feel like they are disappointing us (the adults!) because eating is hard. We want to celebrate their efforts and always make sure that they receive our unconditional love and support.
The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement
Praise and encouragement are two different ways we can respond to a child’s actions. When we respond to a child with praise, we are expressing our approval or admiration for them and the action that they just completed. For example, if a child takes a bite out of a new food, a praise response might sound like, “Good job trying that new food!”
Almost always praise comes paired with an implicit judgment, like “good job!” Praise can teach children to measure their success based on another person’s idea of what makes something good. When we consistently use praise in response to a child’s actions at a mealtime, children learn to look to us for feedback. We become the external reinforcer for mealtime participation or new food trying. When this happens, we run the risk of unintentionally asking children to perform for what they think we expect of them, rather than for their own satisfaction. When we praise children consistently, we teach them to look for external validation.
This is especially worrisome when we consider that internal motivation is one of the most important characteristics we can cultivate in children who are learning mealtime skills. Competent eaters are internally motivated eaters who eat for their own satisfaction and satiety.
While praise teaches children to look for external feedback, encouragement helps a child to build his or her own internal motivation.