Why rewarding children with food is always a bad idea

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Finding means of cajoling the kids into behaving in certain ways or doing things they don't want to do can be challenging. And most parents at some point would have offered up sweets as a reward for finishing veggies or cleaning up a mess.

But this raises some questions about the relationship we could be encouraging between our children and food.

Do we want kids to see food as fuel for the body rather than a treat to be sought after? And as junk foods are more often than not the rewards on offer, are we encouraging a taste for the wrong types of foods?

It also raises questions about parenting more generally. Should we be trying to teach our kids to do the right thing for the sake of it, and not in the hope of being rewarded?

We asked five experts from various fields if we should use food to reward kids.

David Hawes - Child Psychologist - No

The problem with using food as a reward for encouraging children is not that it's harmful – it's just not very effective. Our research has found children with severe behaviour problems often improve dramatically when parents introduce reward strategies that may appear counterintuitive.

Rather than trying to use one type of reward in a predictable way, it's far more powerful to use a range of rewards unpredictably. For example, rather than promising a specific reward (such as chocolate) for future behaviour, respond to good behaviour immediately and in ways the child is not expecting (maybe chocolate, maybe a hug).

And the most powerful reward is often something we don't even think of as a reward – time parents spend with children (such as briefly sharing a game together following positive behaviour). Food may therefore feature somewhere in an effective reward plan, but rewards found in the parent-child relationship count for far more than those found in the fridge.

David J Hawes is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sydney.


Jade Sheen - Family Psychologist - No

If a parent sets food directly as a reward for good behaviour, it places food in the context of 'good or bad'. Working with many young people with eating disorders, I have seen this approach to food become warped, with comments such as 'I must earn this food in order to have it' or 'food is a treat'.

It's more helpful if parents can differentiate between 'sometimes' foods (eaten on occasion) and everyday foods (eaten everyday and necessary for growth and development). If a parent wanted to offer their child a sometimes food, they could adjust their language to decrease the chances of food being labelled as good or bad. For example, 'we have had such a nice day at the beach, let's go and get and ice-cream before we go home' rather than 'if you are really good at the beach today I will get you an ice-cream as a treat'.

Jade Sheen is a Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology at Deakin University.

Jane Martin - Obesity Prevention - No

While a very occasional treat food might be relatively harmless, the reality is our kids eat far too much of these foods. They make up around 40% of the energy in the average Australian child's diet.

The food industry's marketing of unhealthy food as fun and desirable 'treats' for children is relentless. Consider the ubiquitous toys that come with a Happy Meal or Kinder Surprise. We know these create pester power and add to the constant uphill battle to encourage kids to eat healthy food, whether as a reward or on a daily basis.

Another way corporations have set up the link between unhealthy food and rewards is through vouchers for junk food in children's sport. By targeting kids with unhealthy foods in entertaining ways, the food industry is undermining the healthy habits parents are trying to instil.

If parents regularly give in to pester power, fuelled by marketing, children can develop a preference for processed foods high in added sugar, salt and saturated fat. We need governments to implement policies that help make the healthy choice the easy choice for parents, such as tougher restrictions on junk food marketing and clearer food labelling.

Jane Martin is Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition; Senior Fellow, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

Natalie Parletta - Nutritionist - No

Rewards (and consequences) are most effective when they are logically related to the child's behaviour. This fosters intrinsic reward and motivation - for instance feeling proud for attempting or doing well at something.

Especially when it comes to food, research is clear that bribing children with dessert to eat their vegetables, for instance, does not work. They will perceive the reward as more desirable than the food they are being bribed to eat. Food rewards – and being forced to eat something or given food to keep them quiet – will also override children's natural feelings of hunger and fullness.

Strategies that encourage healthy eating include creating a positive, healthy food environment and parental role modelling. Being offered healthy choices and watching parents enjoy good food are powerful forces. Involving children in gardening, shopping and preparing healthy meals and snacks can also nurture lifelong healthy food habits.

Natalie Parletta is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Freelance Science Writer, at the University of South Australia.

Susan Moloney - Paediatrician - No

Rewards are important, they should be fun, they should be healthy and they should motivate and encourage ideal long-term behaviours and performance. When food is used as a reward it usually results in short-term behaviour changes, but sets up life-long unhealthy eating habits.

Healthy eating habits are learnt in childhood, enabling healthy adult eating and lifestyle behaviours. Food as a reward sets up emotional responses to eating, with the consequence of later life coping mechanisms revolving around food. Binge eating, eating disorders and overeating are all associated with the use of food rewards in childhood. Food rewards also encourage children to eat when they are not hungry, thus altering self-regulation cues.

There are many alternatives to food as a behaviour management tool; time with a loved one, interactive play, toys, craft, stickers and books. These will result in healthier children, and adults with appropriate eating behaviours and relationships with food.

Susan Moloney is President, Paediatrics & Child Health Division, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) & Associate Professor at Griffith University.

Alexandra Hansen is Chief of Staff at The Conversation.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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