Last week I wrote about rewarding kids with stars for healthy eating.
My post Star Power discussed a study which successfully taught children to:
- Eat vegetables.
- Eat vegetables at the start of the meal when they’re hungry instead of at the end when they’re already full.
- Choose healthy drinks.
Star Power stirred up a bit of controversy, but I’m going to give it one more shot, with a study that shows not only that kids can be taught to eat fruits and vegetables in exchange for rewards, but to eat them when they’re not being rewarded as well. Here it goes.
The argument for rewards is relatively straightforward: they encourage children to make the right choices.
I think of this as the Rewards–are-the-Honey-that-Makes-the-Medicine-Go-Down argument. Other people call it Positive Reinforcement.
One argument against rewards is that they teach kids to value the reward, not the behavior that is being rewarded.
From this perspective, you can use stars to get kids to eat their veggies, but don’t expect them to ever like eating them. On the contrary, what kids like is the reward. To keep your kids eating their veggies you’ll have to keep giving them rewards.
The Rewards–are-the-Honey-that-Makes-the-Medicine-Go-Down argument counters this line of thinking by saying that rewards aren’t necessary forever because kids end up liking (or at least valuing) the medicine.
Here’s the study that shows kids can be taught not just to eat fruits and vegetables in exchange for rewards, but to eat them when they’re not being rewarded as well.
After watching a brief video about eating fruits and vegetables, a group of 2-4 4 year olds were presented with a tray of 2 fruits and 2 vegetables both at snack time and at lunch time. However, they were rewarded for eating either the fruit or the vegetable (depending upon the phase of the study) at snack time only.
- In the fruit phase of the study, there was a marked increase in consumption of the fruit that was being rewarded, and a modest increase in consumption of the vegetable that was paired with it, even though vegetable consumption was not being rewarded.
- In the vegetable phase of the study, there was a marked increase in consumption of the vegetable that was being rewarded, and a modest increase in consumption of the fruit that was paired with it, even though fruit consumption was not being rewarded.
- There was an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption at lunch time when there were no rewards.
- The increased fruit and vegetable consumption was maintained six months after the study concluded even though no rewards were offered during this time.
The researchers concluded that the children came to find the flavors of the food intrinsically rewarding, and as a result, the extrinsic rewards were no longer needed.
Some people argue that rewards are harmful even when they’re successful.
Many parents who object to using rewards are proponents of Alfie Kohn, whose book Unconditional Parenting, argues that rather than teach kids they are loved unconditionally, rewards teach children that we love them only when they behave as we wish.
I have to admit that I haven’t read Alfie Kohn’s book yet (but I will), so I can’t speak about the relationship between rewards and self-esteem. However, what I can say is that many researchers believe it is important to use the mildest reward. In this way, the reward offers encouragement without exerting undue pressure. And it’s through encouragement that kids develop the right habits.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
Source: Horne, P. J., J. Greenhalgh, M. Erjavec, C. F. Lowe, S. Victor, and C. J. Whitaker. 2011. “Increasing Pre-School Children’s Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables. a Modelling and Rewards Intervention.” Appetite 56: 375-85.