Why Praising Kids With Food Doesn't Work

Experts say rewarding kids with sweet treats sends the wrong message.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on April 10, 2012
3 min read

Have you ever been tempted to use food to reward your children? I can tell you honestly I have, even though I'm a pediatrician. Sometimes, when my 6-year-old twins refuse to eat their vegetables, the words almost fall out of my mouth: "You'll get dessert if you finish."

So what's the big deal? Here's what tends to happen:

You offer sugar but little or no nutrition. Reward foods aren't broccoli or carrots. They're usually cookies, candy, or similar treats high in sugar and empty calories. For everyone, but especially growing children, too much sugar and too many low-nutrient foods can lead to health problems, including weight gain, cavities, and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. According to the CDC, a third of children between ages 2 and 19 are overweight or obese and may face adult health problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

You enable emotional eating. Food given as a reward can lead to an unhealthy emotional connection between eating certain foods and feeling good. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids may use food to avoid feelings or situations that are difficult for them to handle. Eating because they're bored or stressed can cause children to feel guilty or remorseful.

You encourage a desire for sweets and poor eating habits. Giving children food for good behavior teaches them to eat whether or not they are actually hungry, the Connecticut State Department of Education reports. You send the message that sweets are more valuable than other foods.

You sabotage your best intentions. If you reward your child with a cupcake, he'll be less keen to eat his peas, not more. "It's like teaching children a lesson on the importance of not smoking and then handing out ashtrays and lighters to the kids who did the best job listening," Marlene Schwartz, PhD, of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, says.

Next time, for good behavior, say, "Let's go to the park since you did a good job!"

Worried that you've set your kids in the wrong direction with food? Try these ideas for teaching them to eat more healthily.

What's cooking? Get your kids involved in grocery shopping and preparing meals. Encourage them to try different foods.

Involve the family. Establish healthy behaviors for the entire family so children know they are not alone in their goal to be healthier.

Switch it off. Turn off the TV and mobile devices at the table so family members can share what's going on in their lives.

Master moods. Help your child learn that food can't solve problems. Teach him how to deal with his feelings instead.

Get moving. Children need 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Help your children set up an obstacle course. Take a walk or ride bikes together.

Sleep well. Make sure your children get the sleep they need each night. They will be better learners in school and have more energy to run, ride bikes, and play.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of WebMD the Magazine. And don't miss our Raising Fit Kids web sites -- they're full of information on diet, exercise, and healthy family living.