Why Kids Should Not Be Rewarded with Junk Food

By blog team member, Kiran.

I’ve been on my soapbox recently about kids and snacks. And before I step off, I need to address one more issue: rewarding kids with junk food.

If you’re a parent, I’m guessing that you are familiar with this tactic. A child goes to dance (or insert sport here), and the child gets a piece of candy. A child gets a certain amount of stickers on their chart at school, and the child gets candy. Wait a minute – what? Why??

Why kids should not be rewarded with junk food on 100 Days of #RealFood

Why Kids Should Not Be Rewarded with Junk Food

Why kids should not be rewarded with junk food on 100 Days of #RealFoodPersonally speaking, my kids have been in numerous classes where this is the case. There is a dance studio down the road from us that gives every dancer a pink Tootsie Roll type of candy after dance class. Because … ?? Because she attended dance class? Really? I just don’t get it. Then my 6-year-old comes home and tells me that if she wins a certain (educational) game at school, she gets Skittles. Or lollipops. Again – why?

Trust me when I tell you that my kids are not deprived of treats. Remember this piece that I wrote? Well I’m happy to report that our family is even closer to 90% now, but I will still break the rules and occasionally take them out for frozen yogurt or to one of those little bundt cake places. At birthday parties, all bets are off in my book. And when Halloween rolls around, they will get their fair share of candy. As a former candyholic, I think it would be hypocritical of me to never allow it (that’s my opinion, of course). They get occasional treats; I just don’t get why it has to be tied to a reward of sorts.

The Psychological Issues

Remember your psychology class from high school? Don’t worry if you don’t, just do a quick search on “operant conditioning,” which includes positive reinforcement involving the addition of a stimulus following a behavior that will make it more likely the behavior will occur again. Each time that reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior is strengthened.

In terms of school and sports, when we reward children, we are not allowing them to find their own self-satisfaction. That intrinsic emotion that should come naturally from just completing the job and doing a good job is fulfilled with an extrinsic item instead, such as the Tootsie Roll. But when those Tootsie Rolls stop coming, the behavior we were once reinforcing starts to peter out.

Studies (1,2) have even shown that children can perform more poorly when they are anticipating rewards. They have also shown that creativity can be suppressed because kids will do the minimum that they have to, just to get the reward.

I had a talk with Dr. Charlie Brown, a renowned sports psychologist and director of a Charlotte practice that specializes in performance coaching, life balance, coaching for coaches, and more, and he provided the following thoughts* on the topic:

“Some research suggests that rewarding children with snacks not only develops the habit of associating eating with emotions but actually reduces a child’s ability to recognize his or her own internal cues of hunger. If a parent does opt to use food, it is far better to relate the reward to doing an activity with the parent such as, ‘We’ll stop off and get a cone of ice cream on the way home.’ This is far preferable to simply offering a reward without interaction such as, ‘If you play quietly I’ll give you a candy bar.’”

So while it’s not recommended to use food as rewards, if you are inclined to do so it is better to relate the reward to an activity.

The Health Issues

Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to let us know that there is no nutritional value in the candy being given. It’s more like a dose of sugar (which has been such a hot topic these days) likely combined with food dyes. So basically they come to take a class and the providers send the kids home bouncing off the walls with a kick of sugar and gooey candy stuck in between their teeth. Yeah, we’ll hear about this when we have our next dental visit.

But this really is not a joking matter. Giving kids sweets and treats as rewards can be confusing to children, making junk food even more appealing and potentially leading them to develop a preference to it over healthier foods. Kids are also very good (by nature) at regulating their own eating. Giving them rewards can encourage them to eat when they are not hungry. Given in excess, it can also lead to cavities and/or weight gain. It is our responsibility, as adults and caregivers/parents, to offer them the right options. We are the gatekeeper when it comes to junk. Yes, this is a responsibility that falls heavily on us. As parents, it is up to us!

Other Options

Obviously, the notion of rewarding is not likely to go away. But hopefully in time rewarding with candy will at least decrease. If you need some inspiration, we’ve got lots of great ideas for rewards that are not junk food.

But in my opinion, letting the child find that satisfaction from within is the greatest gift that we can give them. After all, no one is waiting with a reward for us for doing a good job at parenting/working/paying our bills, right? Lets set them up for life as best as we can.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

*Dr. Brown recognizes that there are exception to every case: “I ‘never say never’ since food rewards are sometimes used to shape behavior with severely developmentally delayed children; however, this is not the norm for most children.”


1. Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Robert Nisbett, “Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards: A Test of the ‘Overjustification’ Hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28, n. 1 (1973): 129-37.

2. Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan, and Richard Koestner, “A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 125, no. 6 (1999): 659.

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89 thoughts on “Why Kids Should Not Be Rewarded with Junk Food”

  1. Okay so my two year old LOVES strawberries. We use them as a bribe as needed (Toddler is resisting leaving playground and about to throw a tantrum – Mommy says “Want to go home and have some strawberries?” Happy toddler leaves in peace. Win win. We plan on starting potty training soon and I was going to use strawberries instead of candy as the reward. Is this still bad? I always felt okay with it because strawberries are a healthy food.

    1. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      My personal opinion is that you need to find what works best for you. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I bribed my kids with food and even candy while potty training. It worked, and I slowly weaned off of the rewards. As parents, we do what we have to do. Not sure if that helps? :)

  2. THANK YOU!! Finally, someone else gets it. I am completely with you with not rewarding anything with food. It creates associations and hence, emotional eating eventually. My twins are 6 and from the very beginning I was against rewarding any behavior with food (healthy or junk). Food rewards are just a slippery slope. If they want candy or ice cream etc. – we have taught them that they are sometime food and we enjoy them without any conditions except maybe, birthdays etc. It is not easy but, definitely something worth investing time in.

  3. Completely agree with you. Just a side note though… we are rewarded for working. I know I wouldn’t show up everyday if that paycheck didn’t come in every other week. :)

  4. Love the reward my daughter uses. Have a great day, do something extra nice without being asked, etc. her children get an extra bedtime story. They become so excited.

  5. Having just watched the first episode of junk food kids on channel four, disgusted to watch that irresponsible slob neglect her four year old. Kids should be taken off such a lazy selfish brute.

  6. OMG! This reminds me of twenty years ago when I worked in customer service for a catalog company that treated their employees poorly and the morale was so low they were trying things to get the morale up. One of the things were that the top manager would walk around and place a midget tootsie roll on our desk and say, “We appreciate the good work you do.” Talk about an insult.

    Did they really think a bite-sized tootsie roll would show their employees their appreciation for all we did?! Oh, this company also gave us all a $2.00 Christmas bonus one year to show their appreciation for all the overtime we put in. Sometimes, those rewards can backfire on you.

    My children were in middle school at the time and their response to get them to do their chores was always, “What will you give me if I do it.” This was also the time when they were being taught that they have “rights” but no responsibility. Is this where I now quote, “It was the best of times and it was the the worst of times…”?

    Even last year, I cringed when my granddaughter told me she received a piece of candy whenever she would answer a question correctly.

  7. My daughter’s gymnastics school stamps the kids feet at the end of class. The kids love it. There are so many options besides candy.

  8. While I completely agree that kids are over-rewarded, I feel the need to expand on your comments regarding operant conditioning. A reinforcer is only reinforcing when it increases behavior. The problem is that candy is considered reinforcing for all. Many kids don’t require a reinforcer to do the task, but in order to be “fair,” everyone gets it. You have to teach intrinsic motivation, which many great parents do before kids ever get into activities and school. However, some kids don’t experience reinforcement period and often walk in on day one with no idea how to be successful. For these kids, we have to start somewhere. It doesn’t have to be candy, but it has to be something that once given, increases the behavior.

    Your post is specific to candy, which I agree with whole-heartedly. The bigger problem is more about the idea of doing the same for everyone. The idea that people/kids aren’t different and everyone needs external reinforcement. Personally, with a 9 year old and a 5 year old, I hear from my 9 year old, “Why didn’t I get a sticker for saying yes ma’am?” To which I reply, “You didn’t need one because you already know how to say it. Plus, you know how happy it makes me when you say it, and that makes you feel good about yourself. Your brother is learning and hasn’t figured it out yet.” I always pair the reinforcer with an emotion from me and pointing out their emotion. In this way, I can teach the behavior using operant conditioning and at the same time build intrinsic motivation.

    So, to recap, candy = bad choice, reinforcement = sometimes needed to teach new behaviors. We all require some external rewards to do what we do (ex. I doubt you would update your blog this often or spend time writing a book if you weren’t receiving rewards of money, attention, etc. Similarly, I wouldn’t get up everyday at 4 AM to workout if my body didn’t change.). It’s why operant conditioning is supported by over 70 years of applied research. However, once we increase our behavior with external rewards, we often begin to continue it for mostly the internal rewards (although I doubt I’d work 40-60 hr weeks without a paycheck :)).

    Sorry for the long comment, but it brought up a soap box.

  9. I am with you all the way, my kids are involved in a theater group and the director and other parents are continuously offering the kids the worst candy, cookies and junk if they do a good job. It frustrates me to no end. I believe that just being able to participate in an activity that you choose should satisfy one enough and because you chose it you should do your best, call me old school. However I did teach my children the phrase thank you but no thank you and they choose to use it some of the time.

  10. I’m a teacher too and I reward with time as well, 20 minutes free time (which is really just playing math games or fre writing in their journals), extra recess, outside games party, etc. I don’t give my students food ever. When we have birthday parties, we only have them Friday afternoon and I try to make the focus the birthday kid by interviewing them, writing the birthday kid a letter for their birthday book and I hope that the treats sent in by the parents (which 99% of the time is total crap) is an after thought. Of course intrinsic motivation is the ultimate goal… However I feel that extrinsic motivation absolutely has a place in schools. I love my job and am rewarded intrinsically in many ways, day after day, but I wouldn’t go if I wasn’t getting paid.

  11. I’m going to comment on this from the other side. As a teacher, I send out a newsletter every Fall asking parents to provide healthy treats for special occasions, such as birthdays. It has fallen on deaf ears. Students who are celebrating birthdays bring store bought cupcakes (with that horrific frosting that stains the teeth) or store bought cookies. I buy crackers and cheese for the classroom when we have a special event, and provide real apple juice (not a fruit drink) for students to drink. My rewards are non-food rewards, like being able to use my chair for a day or being able to sit with a friend for the day. I do what I can, but I find that parents have a much greater influence overall on what children choose to eat than me…

    We need to realize that if we don’t make time for nutrition and exercise, we will be making time for disease…

  12. I am totally with you on this. I certainly do not mind an occasional treat, but it has gotten out of hand. EVERY classroom party for my child is loaded with candy projects and junk! I do not think parents can be reminded enough to think outside the box for treats. Stay on your soapbox, Lisa! :)

  13. Hi Lisa, We recently moved just south of Charlotte from Minnesota. I’m totally floored that my elementary-aged girls are rewarded with candy and treats at their new school (by their teachers, the counselors, everyone it seems). Did you do any work with your daughters’ school to change the practice of candy being used as a reward? How did you approach it without immediately turning someone (teacher/administrator/food & nutrition services) defensive?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Carrie. Tread lightly and carry some big facts: http://life.familyeducation.com/nutritional-information/obesity/64270.html?page=1&detoured=1. :) Seriously, as a school committee we aimed to educate kids and families about eating healthy real food, we grew a garden, we showed up at events and shared information, and we tried to be involved in our own kids classrooms in ways where we could have input as to what types of treats were in the classrooms. Still, it is an uphill battle and you have to take it one step at a time. ~Amy

  14. For the record I dont!!! Far too many people listen to research, scientific evidence etc on how to bring up children from not rewarding with sweets and BLW, how about we just let kids be kids thousands upon thousands of children have reached adulthood perfectly fine and able to get satisfaction for jobs/sports they do regardless of whether they were rewarded with sweets as child. We spend a long time being an adult give the kids a break

  15. Food has become so much more than fuel for our bodies. We eat emotionally and for comfort. We reward our children with food all day long. I want my daughter to develop a healthy relationship with food. Thank you for reminding me of how important this is!

  16. It does seem as though there are man other ways reward young children. Candy as a reward seems to tell a young mind that candy is what should be most desirable.

    If a treat is still appropriate, perhaps better would even be making the child’s personal favorite dessert, maybe brownies. At least it is not all sugar and it is a reward of their chosen favorite (and they could even help make them which is good family time together) instead of telling them candy is what they should want.

  17. My preschool-age daughter reacts poorly to artificial dye, so this is an issue that frequently rears its ugly head. I’m thankful that her gymnastics club simply stamps kids’ hands or feet at the end of class rather than handing out candy. As kids get older, they phase the stamps out, but preschoolers think they are super cool.

    For Halloween and Valentine’s Day, I look for nonfood items to give out instead: glow sticks, stickers, pencils, etc.

  18. Great article! Along the same lines, it has always bothered me when someone offered my small children a candy treat whenever they got hurt. Oh sweetie you scraped your knee!?! Here, have a piece of candy. I know they meant well (it was always a family member) but I don’t want my kids growing up thinking they need to eat some junk whenever they get hurt, feel sad, are rejected…etc. Where would it end?

  19. I’ve hated this practice of giving out candy/junk food rewards for everything since the time my kids started school, sports, music, etc. I was hoping that as they entered middle school and junior high, the practice would cease, but it hasn’t. My children wanted to take martial arts classes. I was dismayed when the instructors handed out candy afterward. When my children, then around 7 & 9 yrs old, declined, they were literally chased down by the instructors urging them to take the candy. I had to explain to them that my children understand that learning a new skill is reward in itself. Tired of the battle, we discontinued lessons. This battle has replayed itself out in one form or another with the violin teacher, sports coaches, teachers, and other parents. I have written a 6 page letter to the district superintendent pointing out all the problems with this practice. It has fallen on deaf ears. I have basically given up. My thoughts are that I am the last of a generation (49 yrs old)that remembers what it was like to feel the intrinsic satisfaction of having accomplished/achieved something without someone giving me candy. Many of the people handing this stuff out are much younger, and I believe they grew up with it, so it seems normal.

  20. Our son is adopted and food related issues are common in adoption. We try so hard to not make food an issue. He is 5 and constantly asks us about food. He can also really “pack it in”, if we let him he will eat more than my husband and I combined at any given meal. We have repeatedly told his teacher that he manipulates with food and is emotionally attached to it. And yet if he does his “homework” he gets a fun size package of skittles. His teacher pretends to understand the issue, but either ignores us or doesn’t make the connection that you can’t reward our child with food. Just when I think we are making progress he comes home letting me know he had another “reward” while his healthy snack (which he likes) has not been eaten. If it were up to him he would eat sugar all.day.long., and no matter how many times we tell people don’t feed him sugar, they never listen. I feel like since we’ve (society in general) been doing this type of rewarding for so many years that it’s a battle that will not ever be won.

  21. Kiran, regarding your peanut butter problem, have you thought about mixing what they will like half and half with what you are trying to get them to eat? You may need to change the proportions at first but find what they will eat and gradually shift to more of the all-natural version. My mom tried this trick when I was a kid with good success. Just a thought.

    1. Aw; I love it. Cute idea! I will say that I’ve been trying other ones and they are open to them. Jif is def. still what they prefer, but they will eat the others. Baby steps!!! :)

  22. I totally agree. I get so tired of all the candy/sweets rewards. I would love a post that gives us parents advice/suggestions on how to talk to others/teachers/coaches/etc on cutting these treats back.

  23. I’d like to add 2 positives to this. I’m most likely talking about depression and ADHD.
    Motivation and comfort food! (A sweet fruit would OF COURSE be best) I’ve been strict for nearly 10 years with no fast food and feeding my family healthy ingredients and well balanced meals. But life changed my mind. I thought candy and junk food were completely harmful. My Honey and my kids binging on oreos and ice cream would make me sad for their health. But I was wrong. I’ve learned some of them need the sugar or comfort food to fight depression and ADHD. Treats can have an effect like the prescribed pills. Motivation to have a treat in moderation can help a kid through the day. Like a short term goal?
    At 45 years old and in my midlife crisis period, life is telling me that a brownie is more satisfying than more money or a bigger house. Not everyone is a strict organic-nazi like me. Most swing back and forth between living healthy and unhealthy. Falling off the diet wagon and binging on junk.
    Replacing that self abuse with an acceptable treat could better for your overall health? Now if only we could get rid of the poisonous processed junk food and treats, then I’d be okay with this. :-/

  24. I agree, When my son was younger, his Baseball team had ‘healthy’ snacks after each game, each parent took a turn with the snack, most of these were gatorade and packaged chips, cookies or ‘fruit’ roll ups. I was the only one that brought healthy food (water, grapes and bananas)–but most kids turned up their noses to it!


  25. Thank you for this post. As an educator I see colleagues constantly rewarding the low-income children with whom I work with sugary junk and it just infuriates me. Just yesterday a parent came to pick up his son and after I praised his son to his father for what a great job he did that day, his dad said “so it sounds like you earned that ice cream cone!” Before the dad had picked up his son I spoke with the child and told him how proud I was of him for being so focused. The look on his face was that of sheer pride, as he is not a child who hears this very often. While I appreciate his father rewarding him for great behavior, I wish the dad had bent down and looked his son in the eye and told him he was proud of him too. So, thanks for sharing your ideas for student rewards, and thanks again for the previous posts about snacks. They are really helping me educate families and teachers I work with.

  26. That picture was us yesterday. We stopped to get flu shots, and the lady at the front desk (quietly) asked if Lucy could have a sucker. I thought it was great she asked beforehand. But then the doctor loudly asked before the answer could be relayed to her. Thankfully my kid doesn’t really know what suckers are, so crisis averted…but still. Stickers are perfectly fine if they want to distract/reward. I’m not anti-candy by any stretch, but I do like to limit how much and when she gets it. Really I didn’t want sticky sucker hands, lol.

  27. My daughter is only 21 months old so we are new to the rewarding game. However, I did teach elementary school for a while and was SO sick of having to reward the kids every five seconds for the tiniest things. But what I found was that once they experienced the satisfaction of a job well done, I *didn’t* have to bribe them or reward them with candy. But, when I did reward with candy (or stickers or whatever) for an extraordinary success, they appreciated it so much more! It really became a “treat” and not an expectation. I hope to do the same with my daughter. We do not reward her for things we should normally expect (i.e. that she eats her dinner or she is “good” during a grocery shopping trip, etc.). But sometimes we do reward her with a treat (I try to find healthy alternatives to candy) when she does something “big” – like sit through a 3 hour doctor’s appointment without a major melt-down. Right now my daughter loves dried cranberries & raisins so I try to use those as “candy” instead of the other stuff! (Sorry this was long!)

    1. I completely agree with you!!! People don’t have the right to judge on how a parent raises their child. I have 3 daughters and u don’t use food as rewards unless it’s a favorite dinner. I reward my girls with dates, books, etc. Asa Substitue teacher I reward kids for repecting a grownup by going to treasure box. Not going to change who I am and how I reward my child because so and so has something to say.

  28. Our family has been struggling with this for a long time. While we have made our position very clear to our babysitter, she ignored our wishes. EVERY day when her father was on his way to work “Grandpa” stopped by their house and gave each of the kids a lollypop. (“It’s organic!” is the response we got when we asked him to stop.) Our church has a class for the kids during the sermon and they always serve sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks… WHY? There’s an elderly woman in our church known as the “lollypop lady”. In exchange for a hug, she gives kids a lollypop. First of all, NOT a good idea to get kids trained to think this okay. Second, WHY???? What do you tell your kid when EVERY week, EVERY other kid is getting a lollypop? It’s so frustrating. If my daughter wasn’t a sugar addict, like me (I don’t say that flippantly), I wouldn’t be quite so concerned, but she is. It’s a tough society to raise our kids in.

  29. I wish my mom would have had articles like this around when I was younger. I was raised on soda, Little Debbies and basically every sugary treat around. We ate how she ate. Now that I am older and want to make healthy choices, it is a struggle for me. Those habits can get ingrained in us as children. Props from me for all the parents who read this who are trying to get healthy habits ingrained in their kids!! Your efforts are not in vain and your kids will certainly thank you in the long run!!

  30. To me, the issue is that we’re simply rewarding kids too much — whether it’s with candy, or plastic crap, or, or, or…. It’s lost all meaning.

    It’s part of a general over-consumption problem in the U.S.

      1. I agree with the idea that we reward children too often, but I also see this from a different perspective. I am a speech pathologist in a low income elementary school. I have a reward system set up with a sticker chart in that a child only gets a stick at the end of each session if he/she has met certain predetermined expectations. This is a great way to promote positive reinforcement rather than punishment. We should focus more on rewarding good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior.
        For me, I deal with children with special needs and they need much greater encouragement than a typical child needs. I no longer offer candy for the reason of not associating food as a reward, instead I offer small trickets, pens, small toys, etc. I see no harm in rewarding my speech therapy students for the hard work that they put into improving their communication.

      2. I also want to say that I do sometimes use cereal as reinforcement with some of my more severely disabled children because of it motivates these children and I tend to see much greater progress. Pick and choose your battles I guess…

      3. Christine,

        Absolutely understand. This is why we put the little disclaimer at the bottom. There are generally exceptions to rules, and it sounds like in your case, it certainly applies. Small trinkets, pens, etc. are also fabulous. And if cereal works for those in need, that sounds like a good solution for your situation. I appreciate your comment!

  31. Great post, and it comes at such a good time for me. I have been so annoyed with all the junk that other people give my kids lately, including teachers (rewarding with candy and gum for good behavior!!). Plus, after each 45 min soccer game, my kids get ‘healthy’ snacks provided by the parents…these have included oreos, Koolaid, pretzels, etc. I feel like I have to be the food policeman at home, because they get so much junk from everyone else! It’s too bad. It was so sad to me when, at our local little league, the kids were practicing running the bases, and one kid said to the coach ‘what will you give me after I run them?’. Amazing, but not surprising, I guess.

  32. Thank you for this insightful and well thought out post. As a Registered Dietitian and the mother of three young children, I can definitely relate to this issue. Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, CICSW, BCD, is another wonderful resource on the problems associated with using food as either a reward or punishment.

  33. It seems to me that too many activities these days revolve around snacks/ treats. We can’t go anywhere without someone offering my kids something which makes it difficult to control the amounts of sugary and unwholesome foods they eat at times… I am with you completely on the rewards thing… However, like you, I don’t deprive my kids. When they get treats though, they’re usually homemade– which means way less sugar and coconut palm sugar at that, fresh ground WW flour etc. We do go out for the occasional ice cream and once in a while they’ll share a candy… An example the other day was we were traveling to Pittsburgh and stopped off at a Cracker Barrel and we couldn’t leave their country store without getting something LOL. We bought 1 pkg of rolos and they each received one Rolo… Our biggest exception is when one of them gets a shot at the Dr. office. It’s been our tradition since our first was born that they get a donut after from the local shop. We do what we can and try not to judge others. People need to be informed so they don’t make ignorant detrimental choices regarding the health of their kids. I believe that most Moms out there, if they really knew what they were feeding their kids, would make changes, so keep the articles coming… Thank you!

  34. This has always been a issue of concern for me. No wonder our children have adult-onset diseases in today’s world – and whose fault is that? The adults. The interesting thing is – is that kids are now getting to the point that if given the choice – they will pick the non-food reward over the sweet junk. Yet adults still think this is the magic ticket in getting kids to do what we want. Here is a great article on how out of control it has become: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2013/02/20/why-is-everyone-always-giving-my-kids-junk-food

  35. I find this article especially interesting as we quickly approach Halloween. Remember when it used to be such a treat to get a candy bar trick or treating? Now, it’s not even a big deal to kids because they get candy daily!!! It makes my blood boil when my girls come home and tell me they had the following at school: a brownie (because someone brought in a birthday treat), a piece of candy from playing Bingo in class, gum (because the teacher gives it out during tests), and my all-time favorite, a mini candy bar from the PHY ED teacher (as a reward for something in gym class!!!). I’d like to say this is a rarity, but honestly, it’s happening more and more. By the time you add up all the “extras,” it’s a lot of empty calories. And then we wonder why kids don’t eat “meals” anymore…just unhealthy snacks and junk. We tried to implement a “no snack/candy” policy at our religious education program this year. We purchased stickers and other little trinkets for the teachers to use to “motivate” kids instead of candy. The teachers were irate!!! Many even flat out told us they would “find a way” around the policy. So pathetic. Thanks for this blog. It helps me feel like I’m not alone in this battle!!!

  36. The other day I ran a youth event where 5-10 year olds went to a food pantry and sorted food. When it was over, it was over. A mom came up to me and thanked me for NOT providing a treat at the end of the event. She said, “thank you for letting the act of doing a good deed be the reward.” Honestly, I hadn’t even thought to bring (or not bring) a treat. But I was just so happy that she said that. There are people who think like you and me out there!

  37. I don’t believe it’s by accident that I stumbled across this post. Sadly I am one of those children who was rewarded with “candy”. I wish my mom would have had this information when I was younger because now if I have had a bad day or a fight with my fiancée the first thing I want to do is grab a candy bar or eat something sweet and when that is not enough I am searching for something else (depending on what the circumstances were surrounding the need for “candy) It has greatly impacted my life and it has fueled the inner monster of emotional eating. That is one tough monster to deal with as an adult. So patents if you really do want to stop this with your children I can guarantee you that instead of candy they just want time with you. Play a game with them or do a craft together and nurture your relationship. When they grow up they will thank you and will pass this on to their children.

  38. And it’s not better at church! The candy rewards (or donuts or whatever) keep on coming for scripture verse memory, bringing your Bible etc. etc. If any place needs intrinsic motivation, it’s here. Sheesh!

  39. Years ago I took an education class, can’t remember if it was a psychology one or not. We were supposed to set goals for ourselves and then figure out how we would reward ourselves. It was a class of at least twenty or more. Out of all of those people I was the only one who did not use food as a reward. I said I could read for a specific amount of time guilt free. (At that time my kids were young and I was always there for them, so reading time was precious.) I was totally shocked at the response then and continue to be surprised at how much we use food as a reward. I think all of this rewarding is causing many issues.

  40. Hi, I read your post with interest. I am interested in ideas for reducing the desire for “extrinsic” rewards (not just candy) and encouraging self-satisfaction as a reward in itself. I have a 6yr old who is very extrinsically motivated. He is always asking what he will get if he does an activity – even for things he enjoys doing anyway. We don’t give a lot of rewards other than praise, but have used star charts occasionally for particular behavioural issues. I’ve tried explaining that what he gets for helping is other people being happy, and therefore a happier environment all round, but he’s still fixated in what HIS tangible reward is. Appreciate any thoughts.

    1. I reward my 4 yr old by giving her my time. When she helps me to do things or cleans up after herself, I stop and spend time with her. Now she is super keen to help out. She’ll offer to vacuum, then when she is finished I explain that I now have time to spare because I no longer need to vacuum, and I drop everything so we can spend time together doing whatever she wants to do. She thinks it’s great and it makes her feel important and that her input and effort is valuable.

  41. Good thoughts.

    As my two year old gets older, I’ve been thinking about how to help her have proper emotions associated with food (in general, and not just junk food). I realize that for me, food is often a reward or a comfort measure (and usually it’s junk food). Feeling celebratory? Let’s have some dessert or go out to a restaurant! Had an argument with my husband? Let’s go to Starbucks and share a frappuccino to make up and start afresh.

    I don’t think all of those emotions are 100% bad (and in general, for me, I think I have pretty good food habits – no struggles with eating disorders and I am a healthy weight with a healthy pattern of eating). But, I do wonder how I can help my daughter have even healthier (both emotionally and physically) responses/emotions to food – how can we develop some other comfort measures or celebratory techniques that aren’t associated with food?

    Your post brings up some good thoughts along that regard… so thanks! So far she is too young to be “rewarded” for much, though I anticipate that changing soon! We did briefly reward her with a chocolate chip for using the potty successfully, but to be honest, she didn’t really care! So now we just do a “pee pee on the potty” dance and she is just as happy, and I think it’s a much better way to show we’re proud of her and make it into a good moment without feeding her candy each time. :)

  42. Very well put … I kinda suspected that this approach has a lot to do with sugar addiction and obesity in kids, but I never though about it breeding dependence on extrinsic rewards!

  43. I tried to scan the comments to see if this was mentioned, but you must…MUST!!! read Alfie Kohn’s ‘Punished by Rewards”. I read it maybe 20 years ago and it became one of my favs. Four kids later, I have become more connected and more communicative as a mother when I apply it at home.

    You are absolutely right to be against food rewards. I have had such a hard time not wreaking havok in the kids’ schools when they come home with candy! Not that they are not allowed candy; they are. Sometimes. But at SCHOOL?? UGH.

    You have been a real inspiration to me (I am now baking all of our WW breads, pizza crusts, etc). Please read the book! You will LOVE IT!

      1. There is a cd set of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards that is fantastic- a great alternative for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to read or spends a lot of time in the car. I have passed my set around to many teacher and parent friends; it’s excellent.

  44. I’m in my second year of teaching middle school, and it amazes me how often the kids hold their hands out in expectation of candy after I verbally praise them. I refuse to use candy as a reward, and instead I stock up on glow sticks during this time of year, and use stickers and free time as rewards as well. (My administrators suggested the free time, but not all principals would be okay with that.)

    Not only do other teachers give out candy, many of them have started handing out sodas! So now they’re getting caffeine AND sugar. I was horrified to learn this. My own child is only 10 months old, and he has already been offered goldfish crackers at restaurants and cookies at the grocery store. I’m not looking forward to all the junk that lies ahead.

  45. My girls are both in gymnastics. The coaches used to bribe the girls with candy – sometimes every single day. They would put a piece of candy on the end of the beam and if the girls did what they were supposed to they got the candy. They had contests and candy was the reward, etc. It was never ending.

    I like to buy candy from my kids so they won’t eat it. But it is always an option, I do not force it. My dd came out with 2 huge things of candy and I asked her – do you want the candy or $2 for that? She opted for the money. Rather than throwing away the candy at the gym I told her to just give the candy back to the coach. The coach didn’t understand – really, candy works well as a reward – and made fun of me and the girls about how I will never let them have candy. I patiently explained my reasoning (this coach does not have kids and doesn’t understand that they are offered candy almost everywhere we go, not just at the gym). But it was hard, they fully did not get what I was trying to say and really teased us about it – for weeks.

    But what I have noticed is that now, candy is rarely used as a reward at gymnastics. And the girls happily eat it now and I don’t say anything. To be rewarded with candy 1 time a month is quite different than almost daily. It was hard to stand up for what I believed in, but IT WORKED!!! This coach will tease me about my candy rules sometimes in fun, but by me sticking up they changed how they did things. So I encourage others to just say something if someone or a place is giving too much candy out. Plus, candy is expensive, so they might appreciate a reason to not buy it so much.

  46. Dear all,
    What appears is an whole scientofic search on food things.
    But…i believe when you follow your heart, wattch carefulmat e numbers and prepare your food youurself, you are pretty good! All prefab stuff is full of adds we dont want! Its the choice of the clients what to buy amd doiing so we have the poweer to change the big food industry giants!

  47. I totally agree with you. I let my son have junky treats very much in moderation, but I don’t think they should be used as rewards (and I agree that reward systems in general are not ideal).

  48. I’m so glad to see your disclaimer at the end of the post. I’m a behavior therapist for kids with Autism, & Yes food is sometimes used as a reinforcer. I also offer movies, favorite toys, sensory activities, etc, but often those are rejected or not as motivating as food. Many of my clients are transitioned to non edible reward systems if at all possible. Luckily, many parents are willing to work with me to at least try to find healthier foods their child will eat. I tell all my families about this blog.

  49. I was just saying the other day…it’s ironic that my kids’ biggest source of candy is from Dr’s offices (they are little so not in school yet – or I’m sure that would be a bigger source!). Really??! This is our healthcare system??

  50. I completely agree with this. It drives me crazy that my son, who just started kindergarten, is getting so much crap candy at school. Its their reward system and, I just learned, used when kids are coughing in class. The kids that are sick will get lifesavers to keep them from coughing since the school district can’t hand out cough drops. I’ve already asked the teacher not to, but she will still give my kid the lifesaver, so I’m desperately searching for any alternatives that are ok with the school and with me, but I wish it didn’t happen at all.

    1. I just learned my daughter’s middle school was doing this last year to help her stop coughing. She needed to drink lots of water to keep herself hydrated to prevent her from coughing while she was getting over a rare cold. But they have to have a special note to bring a water bottle into in class–which I had sent…but still to need a note for water, ridiculous. How about YOU need a signed note to be able to give my kid candy?

  51. Thank you for posting about this! As a dietitian, I see this as one of the major issues facing children when it comes to healthy eating.

    Things get even worse when the junky foods become rewards for eating healthier items. All this does it set kids up to see the reward foods as more alluring and the healthier items as undesirable.

    It’s so important that we let our kids eat according to their own hunger cues. Messing with this intrinsic system that they’re born with can cause lots of problems for them down the road.

    1. I get your point, but doesn’t letting our kids eat according to their own hunger cues also include NOT to encourage them to try some vegetables and NOT to praise them for eating healthy foods? How can they keep their “intrinsic system” if they are constantly pushed by us parents?

      1. You’re exactly right! It’s not about forcing kids to eat certain foods or praising them for eating. It’s about modeling healthy eating behaviors and offering a variety of healthy foods. Maybe the first time you offer a new food as part of the dinner spread they won’t like it or even want to try it. But, over time, they may come around to love it. When you don’t put pressure on them or make it a giant battle, it allows them to feel more comfortable and can actually make them more likely to try new foods.

        I think Lisa’s experience is a great example of how this can work. Her kids weren’t huge veggie lovers in the beginning, but by consistently offering them healthy foods and being an example of healthy eating habits, her kids have developed an appreciation for healthy foods. She also shows them that less nutritious foods, like a cookie, can be enjoyed on occasion, without having to feel guilty or naughty.

      2. I am so glad you said this! I try hard not to push healthy eating on my daughter, but I simply offer her the healthiest meals I can and my husband and I also eat healthy diets. I always put what we are eating on her plate even if I know she does not like it. And I praise her when she at least tries it, but I try not to force her to eat it. Last week I put some bell peppers on her plate. After a few minutes, she decided to try a bite and I cheered and clapped! She chewed it for a while and spit it right back out! I did not fuss or get upset – I just said “It’s okay if you don’t like it. I’m so glad you tried it! We can try it again another day!” I think it is the skin she doesn’t like so I might even try cutting it off for now (she’s under 2).

      3. It’s so great that you’re creating an environment where you’re daughter feels comfortable trying new foods and that you’re teaching her that, if she tries something and doesn’t like it, the worst that happens is… she doesn’t like it. Trying new foods should be fun, not scary. I love Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility with feeding kids. Basically, she says that the parent is responsible for deciding what is served and the child is responsible for deciding if and how much they eat of what is served. No coaxing, no fighting. You can find more info on her website here: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/dor/divisionofresponsibilityinfeeding.php

  52. I keep a grab bag at home filled with craft activities, books, Lego, and small toys. Most things are $5 or less. When my kids receive a candy reward or party bag filled with candy, they are able to trade it in for a grab bag. My kids are still receiving the reward, but they are choosing to give up the candy and be rewarded with a mommy approved grab bag reward instead. Win win!

  53. Teaching children to associate food with emotions is to be avoided. Comforting with food is, in my opinion, even more dangerous than rewarding with food. Had a bad day at school? Let’s bake cookies. Mini Soccer team lost? We’ll go get ice cream. Just as bad is when we as a parent show ourselves doing the same — “Work was so awful today!” as we tear through a bag of chips, or, worse, say we “need” wine or a beer when something stressful is going on.

  54. I completely agree. I’ve struggled with weight my whole life and for that simple reason I will not reward my child with food. Why not go to a movie or bowling or just do an activity they want to do for a reward?

  55. Great article Kiran. I have found (also in animal training) that most of the time we give food rewards because of something within us…Perhaps because “I” feel poor about “myself” that I want you to like me so I give you a food treat to continue coming so I feel liked. This is just an example. As with animals, non-food rewards can sustain the desired behavior longer such as scratching the “good” spot or verbal praise-same can do with children. You brought me back to my Pavlov and Skinner days!

  56. This always bothered me as a teacher. I did NOT give out candy or treats as rewards. But so many teachers did. There is actually a rule (CCSD in Las Vegas) that says that schools cannot give out or sell candy. That doesn’t mean the kids can’t bring their own, but the schools can’t give it out. Yet, so many teachers would “reward” kids with candy. Drove me crazy! I know why they did it, because it works, but I always thought there were better ways. My daughter hasn’t started school, but there is a charter we plan to apply for that believe in doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. I would hope teachers don’t bribe if that’s their motto. They also do not allow junk foods at school, kids are encouraged to bring a morning and afternoon healthy snack.

    1. Amber, I am also in Las Vegas…my child attends MJ Christensen. Candy and the like are given out as rewards and it is so frustrating!!! I’m curious to know the name of the charter school you mentioned. Thanks!

      1. Karin, I taught for 9 years in Las Vegas, but this summer we moved to Modesto California. So, the charter school is in Modesto; it’s called Great Valley Academy. You could try talking to the principal about the candy rewards. It is a CCSD policy that candy is not to be given out at school. Many schools were strict the year the policy came out (or was reviewed), but have since gone back to their old ways.

  57. I agree 100%! Why is it considered a “reward” to give kids foods that we teach them are not good for our bodies?! Talk about mixed signals.

    I used to weigh 330 lbs, mostly because of the things you addressed here: not knowing the signals of fullness and pure emotional eating. Like you my kids enjoy Halloween/Valentines candy ,and birthday party treats, but potty training, sports, and other achievements are not rewarded with sugar. Since my own weightloss we have not ever taken treats to school for my kids’ birthdays. We have given silly straws, kazoos, fake mustaches, bouncy balls, etc instead and the other kids LOVE it!!

  58. I completely agree and am pleased that candy is not a part of my daughters’ Montessori school. But when it comes to potty training my very stubborn little one, all bets are off. I am happily handing her a jellybean after a successful trip to the potty!! I have been pleased to note that many times she forgets about the candy reward because she is just so happy to tell us that she went potty.

    1. my daughter is 2.5 too, and we don’t ever usually reward with candy, BUT when it came to potty training, I bought a bag of dum dums and she got one every time she successfully used the potty. She had 2 accidents the first day and has only had 2 accidents since and it’s been 4 weeks now, the pops only lasted a short amount of time and as they dwindled down I kept reminding her that once they are gone they are gone. She asks about one once in a while but I remind her she ate them all. They were gone 2.5 weeks ago and it didn’t change her habits once they were gone, she’s still potty trained. And I always got Super excited and praised her hugs kisses and she was was so proud, and she also after the first couple days would forget to ask for a pop. However, on a regular basis we don’t eat a lot of junk food/candy etc, so i’ll be glad if by the time she is in school they don’t reward with candy, there’s just too much of it, every holiday, every birthday in elementary school, then on top of it all they get a candy reward too, it’s out of control the amount of sugar this country intakes.

    2. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      I am totally with you, Missy. I was all about the rewards with my kids during potty training. In my opinion, it was a short term thing and I was desperate. Not an excuse, I know, but it worked for us.

  59. I’m amazed to hear there are school districts that still hand out candy…or any food for that matter! Ours doesn’t allow anything. Somewhere in between these extremes would be fine with me!

  60. Thanks for writing about this. My kids are in high school now, but I remember the parade of sugar from elementary school activities–not just school but sports, scouts, music lessons, dance class, all of it. One of the hardest parts of making the switch to real food in our family is the gradual lessening of sweets of all kinds. We just don’t need them. But everyone’s used to eating sweets every day, to having many foods taste sweet that really don’t need to be, and it’s hard to change.

  61. I completely agree! I signed up to be a helper for my son’s upcoming school Halloween party. I was pleasantly surprised to see a handout saying new this year, treats are not to be included as part of games of crafts at the party. A treat will be included as part of the party and extra candy/toys may be sent home with the kids (non-candy items are encouraged), but treats will not be used as incentive for participating in games and crafts. I thought that was great! And, like I said, they still will get a treat simply because it is a holiday party (and I am fine with that).

  62. I went to the dr this morning for a flu shot (it’s a family practice that treats kids and adults.) There was an orange plastic pumpkin with lollipops in it. Really? Inconsistent, maybe?

    My son gets one at the barber shop, but somehow it doesn’t bother me as much since the barber is just about haircuts, not health.

    1. My daughter got her flu shot the other day, too. And I was horrified when I saw them reach for the plastic pumpkin, telling her to pick something out. But much to my surprise, it was filled with Halloween Trinkets and she picked out a pair of purple Dracula teeth :) Yay!

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