Alternatives to Food as a Reward

By Linda Boyd

Special to the Tribune

Getting children to co-operate can sometimes be a tough job and adults often resort to a sweet treat or other desired food as a reward or incentive for good behaviour.

  • Mar. 4, 2011 6:00 a.m.

By Linda Boyd

Special to the Tribune

Getting children to co-operate can sometimes be a tough job and adults often resort to a sweet treat or other desired food as a reward or incentive for good behaviour.

It happens at home, at music lessons, at sports, at the hairdresser, and at school.

Is there any harm in using food as a reward?  Should we be concerned?

Using food to reward children is easy and it can work well — but only in the short term. In the long run, this practice can cause more harm than good. Rewarding children with candy or food is not a good practice because it:

• Increases preference for the reward food

• Teaches children to eat when they are not hungry

• Teaches children “emotional eating” (rewarding and comforting with food)

• Interferes with appetites for healthier foods at meal and snack times

• Contributes to tooth decay

• Contradicts healthy-eating messages that parents, teachers, and coaches promote.

Although well intentioned, “just one little treat” from the many people a child sees in a day or week quickly adds up.

In a time when one in three children is overweight, there is not enough wiggle room in our children’s diets to accommodate all of these extra food rewards.

Many children have small appetites and using treats as rewards may replace healthy foods that provide the nutrients they need to grow, play, and do well in school.

It is OK for parents and caregivers to let children enjoy an occasional treat. The important point is to not make the treat a reward for good behaviour.

There are lots of alternatives to candy and food that can be used as rewards including: stickers, pencils, notebooks, stamps, stick-on tattoos, curly straws, bubble bath, an extra story at bedtime, or a trip to the park.

In the classroom teachers can utilize non-food rewards that are free such as going first, being teacher’s helper, sitting by a friend or reading the morning announcements.

Classes can be rewarded as a whole with listening to music while working, eating outside, extra art, or free choice time at the end of the day.

Rewards can also be earned over time by tracking good efforts on a personal or classroom chart.

Parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults should never underestimate the power of positive feedback, telling a child you notice and appreciate their positive efforts can be a reward itself.

The ultimate goal of rewarding children is to help them internalize positive behaviours so they will not need anything more than their own good feelings to behave well or perform routine tasks.

Looking for more non-food reward ideas?  See http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/constructive_classroom_rewards.pdf.

Linda Boyd is an Interior Health community nutritionist based in Vernon.