Your child agrees to eat some broccoli in return for a sticker. He knows if he gets enough stickers he can pick out a toy. Will he keep eating broccoli when the rewards stop? New research says, well, maybe.
Studying the effects of non-food rewards on healthy food acceptance in kids is hot right now. Doesn’t this go against everything we know (and I teach!) about rewarding kids for eating? Let’s first look at the research.
What Does the Research Say?
In a 2011 study in Appetite, Lucy Cooke and colleagues reviewed the evidence regarding rewards and food acceptance in children. The first studies, starting in the 1980s, revealed a backfiring effect, with rewards causing decreased liking and intake using relatively palatable foods like fruit-based drinks. When food was used as the reward, it did not increase liking for the target food but it did for the reward food.
More recent research indicates that non-food rewards (it is generally accepted that food should not be used as the reward) can lead to increased intake of less palatable foods like vegetables. Some of the most promising studies utilize repeated exposure and small tastings in younger children.
For example, one study divided 4 to 6-year-olds into separate groups, with one group receiving exposure with a tangible reward (like a sticker) another group receiving exposure with a verbal reward and another group receiving exposure without a reward. Each group was exposed to a target vegetable for 12 days. After the intervention, liking increased in all 3 groups but intake only increased in the reward groups, which was maintained 3 months after the study. Two other studies in which parents administer these experiments at home show similar results.
What about older children? Researchers from Brigham Young University and Cornell used money to incentive kids to eat fruits and vegetables, resulting in significantly increased intake (80%). But when the monetary reward went away, consumption returned to the prior level.
Studies using rewards as part of the UK’s Food Dude program at schools reveal increases in healthy food intake as well. But when researchers examined how this translates to eating at home, they found that while the intake was higher at 3 months, by one year the effect was no longer seen.
Rewards and Motivation
What does research say about the use of rewards to change other desired behaviors (like studying/good behavior to improve academics)?
First off, this is a controversial area, with some experts supporting the use of rewards with others strongly opposing it. All agree that rewards change behavior over the short term but what gets muddy is the effect on intrinsic motivation (desire to do the task for its own sake) which helps the desired behavior stick.
Research does show that rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. When people feel like they are being controlled, rewards decrease autonomy and competence. Some come to value the reward more than the activity itself, so when the reward goes away so does the behavior. But in other cases, especially when there is low intrinsic motivation, to begin with, rewards can create interest and change behavior.
And while some experts say controlling rewards can “crowd out” intrinsic motivation, rewards viewed as supportive may “crowd in” intrinsic motivation. Below is a summary of instances where rewards are more likely to work and not work:
Likely to be ineffective:
-already motivated or interested in the task
-use of vague performance objectives
-rewards become expected and are promised ahead of time
-rewards feel controlling
-over-reliance on rewards to change behavior
-activities where there is little interest
-use specific performance objectives
-rewards are given after the desired behavior
-rewards feel supportive
-judiciously using rewards
Relating it back to food
Based on the research, anyone considering — or currently using — rewards to encourage kids’ healthy eating need to weigh the pros and cons. Will it undermine a child’s internal motivation to make good choices now or in the future? Or will it give the child the (friendly) push she needs?
For those of us who follow the trust model of feeding, rewards can feel like they against what we are trying to instill in children. Because supporting a child’s internal motivation to eat is more important than focusing on outcomes (eating the food). This is done with exposure (which, by the way, increases liking), joyful meals, modeling, structure, making food taste good and not interfering during mealtime.
Will adding rewards really hurt all the work parents do to build eating competence in children? Maybe or maybe not, but for some of us (me included), the risk of using rewards is not worth it.
But like everything in parenting, individuals need to decide for themselves if rewards make sense for their family.
Let me know how you feel about it in the comments.
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