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Using Candy as a Reward Leaves a Very Bad Taste

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Using Candy as a Reward Leaves a Very Bad Taste

Many adults give food rewards to children to reinforce good behaviors, but is this the best choice? Let’s take a closer look at how this influences their other behaviors and what it means for their health.

I recently received a copy of a letter sent home to parents by the principal of an elementary school. In the letter, the principal stated that the teachers at his school try to maintain a positive environment by rewarding good behavior, sometimes with candy. He stated, “These treats cost the teachers very little, and they get a great return on their investment.” While this approach may seem beneficial in the short term, it can have longer-term consequences that many of us don’t always link together.

What can be improved in this situation?

While the principal and the teachers see this as a small, positive reward for the children, it’s a simple reminder of how small decisions can lead to bigger issues. Over the past 40 years, overweight and diabetes have become even more prevalent at young ages. In the early 1970s, 5% of children were overweight, which has now increased to 15%. In the early 1970s, type 2 diabetes was referred to as “adult-onset diabetes.” Now pediatricians are reporting that children as young as 6 are being diagnosed with this condition.

What are some examples of areas we can help our children improve?

When we look at the numbers for obesity and diabetes, it’s possible that we are raising the first generation of children born after WW II whose lifespan may decrease due to a lifestyle that puts them at very high risk of chronic disease. Here are a few key areas that impact this:

  • Four out of five children are not eating the minimum recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables. Instead, they are consuming foods of low-nutrient-density such as candy, cookies, chips, doughnuts and French fries.
  • There has been a dramatic increase in soft drink intake in children over the past 20 years while the rate of milk intake has decreased. Eighty-one percent of teenage girls are not getting enough calcium in their diet because they drink more soda than milk.
  • Children spend an average of four hours a day watching TV, and another half-hour playing computer games.
  • Less than half of children are physically active for an hour every day; 80% of youngsters enrolled in middle schools could not pass the California fitness program.

What does this have to do with giving children candy as rewards for good behavior?

  • We are born with an innate preference for sweet taste. This preference can be fostered or suppressed. If it is fostered, children will be resistant to eating foods that don’t taste sweet, like vegetables, plain milk, and unsweetened cereal.
  • Research on child eating habits has shown that foods used as “rewards” become more desirable to children than if they had not been used as rewards. So, when candy is used as a reward, children come to like it more and want it more than they would otherwise.

What about the children whose parents don’t want them given candy as a reward?

What will happen to them as they watch other children receive candy while they are given something else? Candy can become the “forbidden fruit” and may become even more desirable to these children because they can’t have it. Studies also have shown when restricted food does become freely available, the child will eat more of it than she would have if it hadn’t been restricted.

What is the best approach to take as a parent?

Ultimately, there are some situations that are out of our hands. However, if we do our best to educate our children about healthy choices while also teaching them that there is a certain time and place for treats, we will help them to make good choices no matter where they are. As adults, we can also help teach others that giving something unhealthy as a reward for being good can send mixed messages.

Parents, teachers, principals, and any other person who has a strong influence on your child’s life should be aware of this information. Let’s all join together to discuss more positive, alternative non-food rewards that can be offered!

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About the Author

Picture of Joanne Ikeda, MA, RD

Joanne Ikeda, MA, RD

Joanne is a nationally recognized registered dietitian. She is a Cooperative Extension nutrition education specialist, lecturer in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and founding co-director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley. She has done research on a wide-variety of topics in the public eye including childhood obesity, how income affects diet, children’s body image and weight discrimination among young people. More recently, she has promoted the adoption of "size acceptance," an approach to the treatment of obesity that emphasizes health promotion rather than weight loss.

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