When you go to the movies, do you always get popcorn?

If you do, that’s probably because you have what’s called an cognitive script for going to the movies. Congitive scripts tell you what normally happens in different situations–and in what order.

  • Buy movie ticket.
  • Buy popcorn.
  • Watch movie and eat popcorn!

Cognitive scripts work because they simplify decision-making and guide behavior.

Kids have congitive scripts too.

And guess what: they develop those scripts early on. Maybe even by the age of 2. Certainly by the age of 3.

Maybe you know where I’m going with this…

Every time you serve food in a given situation, you’re helping your children write a cognitive script.

My infant daugther cried every time she was in the car. It didn’t take long for me to learn that if I fed her in the car she didn’t cry. It didn’t take long for my daughter to learn that every time she was in the car she got a snack.Talk about a bad eating habit!

Here’s the study: Kids between 4 and 6 years old were asked to tell researchers about what usually occurs during playdates, when they go to the movies, or when they attend a sporting event.

The children were asked to name four things that occured on each of these occasions. And this is what the reseachers learned.

  • 54% of the children mentioned eating on playdates
  • 74% of the chidlren mentioned eating at the movies.
  • 54% of the children mentioned eating at sporting events.

When researchers asked kids who didn’t mention food if they ever ate during these events, the numbers jumped. For instance, now 71% said they normally ate on playdates.

This was a small study, but it makes perfect sense, especially when you think about how habits form…and how hard they are to break.

I know what you’re thinking: what’s wrong with eating on a playdate?

My answer: nothing. Unless your children develop a cognitive script which makes them think that playdates and food always go hand-in-hand.

  • Or a cognitive script that tells them that playdates mean cookies.
  • Or a cognitive script that tells your children that tantrums are followed by food.
  • Or a cognitive script that dinner=pizza. (I know kids like this.)

Cognitive scripts shape people’s behavior and expectations in the long run.

That’s something to consider. Especially because research shows:

  • Children today consume more calories and eat more frequently than children did 30 years ago.
  • One study found that, for school-age children, snacks account for 27% of total daily calories. In comparison, breakast=18% and lunch=24% of total calories.

And while it’s tempting to thing that snacking is a healthy habit, the research shows that most kids snack on pretty bad stuff. Read The Snack Attack and Snacks: The Gifts That Keep on Giving, and Change How Your Kids Snack.

What cognitive scripts are you writing with your kids?

And how are these scripts shaping your kids’ eating habits? Now that’s food for thought.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Musher-Eizenman, D. R., J. M. Marx, and M. B. Taylor. 2015. “It’s Always Snack Time: an Investigation of Events Scripts in Young Children.” Appetite 85: 66-69.