Rewarding Kids' Behavior With Food: Are You Doing It Right?

child reaching into a jar of candy

It starts with a piece of candy every time they use the potty, followed by an ice cream every week they clean their room ... then pizza for every "A" they get in school. Using food as a reward for good behavior is common -- and effective! Yet experts warn that parents weave a tangled web when they offer edible treats as incentives.

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"Although it is a common practice, I am not a big proponent of using food as a reinforcer," says Frank Sileo, a licensed psychologist at DrFrankSileo.com. The reason is that the food offered up is typically unhealthy -- candy, soda, chips.

"This sends a mixed message to kids," adds Sileo. "They are taught to eat healthy and avoid certain foods but we reward them with the foods that we tell them to avoid. It also makes a connection emotionally: When they do something good, then it's okay to indulge in something unhealthy. This may lead to emotional eating."

A better solution? Offer a healthy reward -- it could be a dinner out, sleepover with a friend, school or art supplies, or a special trip to a museum or book store. The important distinction is it's a reward you can sustain for the long haul.

"The goal of positive reinforcement of behaviors should be one that can be maintained," says Shari Giti, a child psychologist in Hermosa Beach, California. "For potty-training, for example, I recommend sticker charts and verbal validation. When the child sits on the potty, let them pick out a sticker on their own and stick it on the chart on their own. At the same time, I encourage parents to verbally validate their child. For example, 'Great job!' or  'Awesome!' Verbal validation is a form of reinforcement that can be maintained long-term throughout all developmental milestones and behaviors." 

The point is to provide a reward that sticks in a child's mind. "A reward works best if the attainment of it lingers in the child's mind," says Mark Loewen, a licensed counselor at LaunchPadCounseling.com. "A walk in the park or a dinner out can be enjoyed for a longer period of time, and creates a memory. Candy is often eaten and forgotten."

More from The Stir: Parents Who Don't Reward Kids for Chores Are Setting Them Up for Failure

Age is another consideration. "For infants and toddlers, food is probably the main reward. So at those ages it's entirely appropriate and effective, so long as it's not used as simply a pacifier to keep the child quiet and give mom a break," says Jeanette Raymond, author of Now You Want Me, Now You Don't! Fear of Intimacy. "Don't bribe the child with food for behaviors in circumstances that haven't already been thoroughly negotiated, spelled out, and agreed to. Otherwise, the food that is contingent on a good behavior will lose its value and the parent will lose their authority and consistency."

Bottom line: Offer a reward you can sustain for things that are true achievements verses everyday habits. Nix the treats for every potty trip and try a dinner out every week for a clean room. This will not only cultivate healthy habits, but a better behaved kid. 

Do you offer food as a reward for good behavior?


Image ©iStock.com/MarsBars

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