Food rewards and bribes teach the wrong lessons
BY JENNIFER MOTL
“If you’re good, I’ll buy you some French fries,” I overheard a mother telling a child the other day. But rewarding good behavior with food can backfire in the long run, leading to weight problems and overeating.
As a parent, I appreciate how tempting it can be to use food to encourage a kid to do what’s right. And as a dietitian, I’ve seen it all. Parents try to reward kids for eating broccoli by allowing them to have ice cream; or they withhold the ice cream if the kid doesn’t eat the broccoli. Teachers reward good grades with pizza parties.
While edible bribes work instantly, they have insidious side effects in the long run. Here’s why it doesn’t work, and what you might try with your children instead.
HUNGER AND FULLNESS
Rewarding kids with food teaches them to eat when they’re not hungry. Why would children turn down chocolates or whatever food treat that they “earned” with good behavior?
But eating past the point of fullness can lead to being overweight, already epidemic among American children.
At the same time, punishing by withholding food also encourages overeating. For example, punishing kids by sending them to bed without dinner just teaches them to eat extra whenever they can because who knows when the next meal will be?
Even milder punishment, such as withholding dessert, can encourage overeating the next time the child has access to dessert.
A BAD MESSAGE
The time-honored tactic of bribing kids to eat their veggies in return for a dessert reward actually makes them hate veggies even more, according to researchers. It sends a message that veggies are so distasteful that no one could stand to eat them unless bribed.
In fact, bribes can actually teach kids to hate foods they didn’t mind previously. In one eye-opening study, researchers studied dozens of kids aged 4 to 7. They asked each child to pick two snacks from a wide array—two snacks that the child rated neither a favorite nor a hated food.
The children were then assigned to three groups: one I call “bribe”; two-course meal; or child’s choice. (The researchers had fancy technical names for the groups, but these are easier for me to remember.)
The kids in the bribe group were told they had to eat one snack (the bribe) in order to get the second snack (reward). Afterward, these kids reported disliking the bribe snack even though before the experiment they had rated it as neutral.
The kids in the two-course meal group simply received one snack after the other snack, without any instructions that they had to eat it. The kids in the final group, the choice group, were able to choose which snack to each first. The kids in the two-course and choice groups rated both foods neutral at the end of the study.
Only the kids who were bribed learned to dislike foods that they previously tolerated.
LEARNING TO LIKE VEGGIES
If you’re a parent, you may be wondering how on earth you’ll get your kid to eat veggies without holding dessert over his head. Lots of research shows that merely exposing kids to veggies makes it more likely they’ll try and enjoy them.
Some children need to be exposed to a veggie 10 to 20 times. So if you make broccoli once a week, it could take five months before your child likes it. Just keep preparing it, and don’t force your child to eat it.
Do smile while you eat the broccoli—studies show kids who watch parents enjoying a food are more likely to like it themselves.
REWARD WITH ATTENTION
Instead of bribing children with treats, consider other rewards you can try at home and school. You can find lengthy lists of rewards here:
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/constructive_rewards.pdf
- Clemson University Cooperative Extension: clemson.edu/extension/hgic/food/pdf/hgic4110.pdf
Here are just a fraction of the options:
To provide instant rewards for the desired behavior, try offering:
- Praise and a pat on the shoulder.
- Coloring books and crayons.
- Sidewalk chalk and time to color.
- DJ—the child chooses the radio station or music for the family to listen to.
- Extra bedtime stories.
- Playing catch or another favorite game with a parent.
- Play money to trade in for trips and prizes such as going to the zoo, the movies, or a sporting event, or getting a new book or toy.
To reward students, offer these kinds of privileges:
- Going first.
- Sitting with friends.
- No-homework pass.
- Listening with a head
- set to a book on CD.
- Watching a brief video.
To reward a class full of kids, offer:
- Extra recess or free time.
- Being first to go to the lunchroom.
- A song, dance or performance by the teacher.
- A field trip.
So, instead of bribing with food, consider rewarding children with attention, special privileges, outings and prizes.
Jennifer Motl is a registered dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now lives in Wisconsin. She welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.