So what do parents, like mine, do when they are faced with a ding dong craving, pringles loving, child like me? If we look to classic psychology theory for an answer, the results are mixed. Research on behaviorism has shown that positive reinforcement – when a behavior is followed by the presence of rewards – makes the behavior happen more often. Applied to the green veggie quandary - when children eat the healthy parts of a meal, parents provide rewards (e.g. smiles, stickers, or simply cold hard cash). If the theory is correct this will increase the likelihood the child will eat more healthy foods in the future.
This idea has been challenged by another line of research, however. Self-determination theory suggests that providing extrinsic rewards actually undermines, or diminishes intrinsic motivation. Again, applied to the green veggie quandary, if parents reward children for eating the healthy parts of a meal, children will actually come to like those healthy parts less, and will only be motivated to eat them, in order to obtain the reward. Take away the reward, and the green veggies will stay on your child’s plate. So who is right?
What did Dr. Cooke find? Do rewards reinforce healthy eating like behaviorism tells us or do they diminish liking a la self-determination theory? In this study, children who were given rewards (praise, stickers) for eating a disliked vegetable ended up liking the vegetable just as much as participants who were exposed to the vegetable but were given no reward. In fact all of the groups came to like the vegetables more over the course of the study, simply through exposure to them.
The different groups didn’t fare equally well over time, however. Those participants who initially received rewards for eating the vegetable maintained a higher level of consumption even after those rewards were removed. In sum: kids who were given external rewards for eating their vegetables, be it stickers or praise, liked the vegetables more, and continued to eat them when they no longer received a reward.
These findings support classic research on behaviorism, and provide parents with some options when their child looks at broccoli and says yuck. Remember, participants liked and consumed more veggies whether they were given external enticement in the form of stickers, or social praise – “Brilliant – you’re a great taster!” Continue to expose your child to veggies, and when they taste them, clap your hands, cheer, smile! Perhaps you can reserve the sticker option for particularly unsavory looking foods. I know mushrooms gave me the heebie-jeebies as a child.
So what about no dessert until you eat your vegetables? It’s important to note that this research did not evaluate the efficacy of punishment, another tactic addressed by research on behaviorism. Negative punishment is when a behavior leads to the removal of something desirable. Many parents employ negative punishment - when they refuse to give their child something good, like dessert, if the child doesn’t eat something healthy first. Future studies should pit rewards against punishments in predicting liking and consumption of healthy foods.
What do you do when your child refuses to eat the nutritional (yet tasty) meals you slaved over? Did your parents do anything special that worked for you?
Here's the article:
Cooke LJ, Chambers LC, Añez EV, Croker HA, Boniface D, Yeomans MR, & Wardle J (2011). Eating for pleasure or profit: the effect of incentives on children's enjoyment of vegetables. Psychological science, 22 (2), 190-6 PMID: 21191095