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

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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”

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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

  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. :-/