Should you bribe your children to eat their food? New research says ‘yes’…sometimes.

Using ‘rewards’ (as I call them, although my husband calls them ‘bribes) to get my children to eat is something I’ll admit to doing from time to time. The most common reward I use is dessert: if my children don’t eat a reasonable (and I err on small) side of the main course that I’ve served, then they don’t get dessert. Usually, I only have to mention this once or twice in order for them to finish their carrot soup, cauliflower casserole, or whatever else I’ve made that night.

But I’ve often worried about bribing the children in this way. In fact, experts often caution that bribing (or rewarding) will lead to a ‘backfiring’ effect: repeated studies have shown that kids’ preference decreases for the foods for which they are rewarded. (This is in line with more general theories of reward in psychology and economics: rewards can enhance performance, but they can also undermine instrinsic motivation and decrease enjoyment of the rewarded task.)

But (and here I breathe a sigh of relief) new research by psychologists at University College London suggests that ‘rewarding’ children is sometimes OK, and that ‘backfiring’ doesn’t always occur.

In their study,tThe researchers–based at the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London–distinguish between two different goals: liking a food, or eating a food. If a child already likes a food, rewards will probably result in a negative effect (children will like it less). ‘Backfiring’ may occur in this case.

But if a child doesn’t like the food, and is encouraged by a reward to taste it, the result may be positive (this is known as the ‘exposure effect’: the more children taste a new food, the more likely they are to end up liking it). And, if the goal is for the child to eat the food, then rewards will probably have a positive effect. So rewards might be a good idea for vegetables (for example).

Another issue concerns the type of reward offered. Although they warn against offering food as a reward, the researchers argue that it may be a good idea to offer non-food rewards (like stickers), or non-tangible rewards (praise).

So, the take home message is: judicious use of rewards may increase your children’s acceptance of healthy foods (particularly vegetables). However, it’s best to avoid using food as a reward.

Hmmm….does this mean I need to stop saying: “You can have your dessert…but only when you’ve eaten your dinner?”

Lucy J. Cooke, Lucy C. Chambers, Elizabeth V. Añez, Jane Wardle, Facilitating or undermining? The effect of reward on food acceptance. A narrative review, Appetite, Volume 57, Issue 2, October 2011, Pages 493-497.

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