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.”

References

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”

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  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