What parent doesn't want good behavior and great grades? Rewarding children when they do something desirable is an effective way to bring about the behaviors adults value, says Angie Hasemann, RD, CSP, weight management dietitian at the University of Virginia Children's Hospital. Unfortunately, however, parents and teachers often reward kids with sweets and other food because "they're cheap, convenient and valued by kids," she explains. Even though bribing children with candy to clean their rooms and eat their vegetables may lead to a clean room and a clean plate, there are many negative long-term consequences.
When food is given as a reward, children fail to connect that food is fuel, Hasemann says. They don't learn how important the quality of their food is to their energy levels, attention spans and athletic performance. Food rewards also teach kids to expect food when they've done something well, which can lead to poor nutrient intakes, eating when not hungry and an excess of calories. And it teaches them that the food rewarded is more desirable than other foods. "Kids need to establish a healthy relationship with food at an early age," says Marina Chaparro, RDN, CDE, MPH, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It's up to the parents to set the proper stage for this, so non-food rewards are a wiser strategy.
Non-Food Rewards Kids Love
Praise is highly effective and costs nothing, Chaparro says. Take time to identify additional non-food rewards that motivate your children. If your children are old enough, brainstorm a list of incentives with them. Here are several to consider:
- Play date with friends
- Sleepover with friends
- Special time with parents or grandparents
- Sitting at the head of the table for dinner
- Trip to the park, zoo, pool, skating rink, bowling alley or movies
- Time off from chores
- More screen time (computer, tablet, TV, video games)
- Additional minutes on the cell phone
- Additional car privileges
Non-Food Rewards at School
You may have a successful non-food reward system at home, but food rewards in school might send mixed messages to your children. Discuss your concerns with your children's teachers, says Chaparro. Explain the downsides of rewarding children with candy or celebrating a class victory with an ice cream party. Then, offer other options such as temporary tattoos, student of the week awards, eating lunch in a special place, additional time for recess, class field trips and watching movies.
Even with careful planning, sometimes others will continue to offer your children tasty rewards. When this happens, Hasemann says parents can set up a culture in which food rewards aren't valued as much as trips to the park or a family soccer game. "Model the behavior you want your child to follow," she says.
By emphasizing healthier rewards, your children will strive for those.