Behavior & Development • Jun 23, 2014

Bribing Kids to Eat Well: The Next Crusade Against Obesity

Bribe our kids to eat healthy food?!  Did I really just read this in a respected medical research journal?  I did a double-take, but yes, someone actually published research suggesting that bribing kids to eat healthy food is an approach to fight the American obesity epidemic.

One third of American children are overweight or obese, and 70% of these children will grow up to be overweight adults.  American medicine has defeated polio, smallpox, and the other infamous killers of children.  But we’re failing when it comes to obesity.  Our children might be the first generation of Americans to die younger than their parents.  We are now so frustrated by our inability to combat addictive junk food that we’re willing to stoop to bribery to get kids to eat right.

Nutrition Experiment

More than 1600 school-aged children were given a choice between a cookie (chocolate chip or snickerdoodle) or a cup of dried fruit (banana chips, acai berries, dried mango).  The control group was simply given a choice between the two snacks.  A second group was given an educational session about food choice using the USDA’s “MyPyramid for Kids.”  A third group was given the same educational session, but if they chose the dried fruit over the cookie they also got a small toy worth less than fifty cents (wristband, keychain, etc.).

The results don’t surprise me– bribery works.  The kids in the control group only choose the healthy snack about 17% of the time.  The kids in the education-plus-bribery group chose the dried fruit more than 75% of the time.  A week later the same experiment was conducted, except without toy incentives for choosing the healthy snack.  Less than a quarter of children who had previously been bribed still chose the healthy snack.

We’ve created a generation of entitled kids.  Now our children are overweight and entitled.  What happens to these kids when they come home?  Do they expect a toy for eating their broccoli?

There was some success here– a small percentage of children continued to choose dried fruit over a cookie even when the bribery was removed.  Some kids learned to make healthier food choices.  The bribe was what they needed to try the healthier food.

There is a time and a place for bribery in parenthood, but it’s not with food.  During potty-training I give my children treats for success.  It’s the incentive they need to realize they prefer the potty over diapers.  But there are better approaches to convincing children to try healthy food– like not offering junk food.

Some schools have taken steps to remove junk food from their campus, banning Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and removing vending machines.  Bribery is no match for conniving American snack food industry, that has learned to market addictive, “hyperpalatable” foods to our children– foods with just the right mix of fat, salt, sugar, and spice to make kids’ brains release pleasurable neurotransmitters– so kids just eat the whole bag.

Another surprising outcome of this study: bribed kids were more likely to actually consume the healthier snack.  The kids in the education-only group were more likely to choose the dried fruit than the control group, but only 60% of those that choose the dried fruit actually ate it.  In the education-plus-bribe group, more than 90% of the kids ate the dried fruit.  I call this the Happy Meal effect– McDonald’s figured out a long time ago that toys motivate kids to eat.

Ultimately, we need to teach our children virtue, self-control, self-mastery, and discipline.  We need kids that aren’t always calculating, “What’s in it for me?”  What happens when they experiment with drugs– are we going to bribe them to stop?  They might expect it, the way we are going.

We’ve taken “positive reinforcement” too far.  Praise for a strong effort or good attitude is the positive reinforcement our children need.  Occasional random rewards are very effective, too.  Yesterday my son surprised me by finishing his chores before I woke up– I gave him extra screen time.  Positive reinforcement turns into a bribe when the reward is expected, an entitlement.

My kids don’t have a perfect diet, but they do eat vegetables every day and I don’t bribe them to do it.  You can teach your kids to make healthy food choices, too.  Here’s our approach, “Food Fights: A Pediatrician’s Attempt to Get Her Kids to Eat Well.”