After stumbling on the article Bribing Kids to Eat Their Greens Really Does Work, I have added a new subscription to my blog reader. I really like what Christian Jarrett had to say about using positive reinforcement to encourage children to eat vegetables, learn to like them, and even eat more vegetables when no reward would be given. Rewarding children with stickers or praise for eating healthy food can do more than get them to clean their plates one evening.
After being encouraged to eat a vegetable 12 times in two weeks, children ranked the vegetable higher in preference to other vegetables than they had previously ranked it, and these results remained consistent in follow ups one and three months later. After the two week experimental period, those children that had been rewarded with stickers during the experimental period chose to eat more of the target vegetable when they knew there would be no reward than those children that received no positive reinforcement during the experimental period. In the one and three month reviews, the children praised and the children given stickers maintained their increased voluntary consumption, but the children simply exposed to the vegetable did not.
The researchers point out that in older research, bribing children to eat vegetables that they already liked did make them less interested in those vegetables. This may mean that once a child integrates a previously avoided food into his or her diet without discussion, it is no longer beneficial to reinforce the behavior. However, Jarrett’s final paragraph makes an important point:
“An important detail of the current study is that verbal praise was almost as effective as tangible reward. ‘Social reward might be particularly valuable in the home,’ the researchers said, ‘because it may help parents avoid being accused of unfairness in offering incentives to a fussy child but not to the child’s siblings.'”
Verbal praise is my favorite positive reinforcement because it is easy, free, always immediately available, and because attention is the highest motivator for a child. In addition to stickers, extra television time, an extra book at bedtime, and walking the dog with a parent are just a few positive reinforcements you can use to encourage your children to try and learn to like new vegetables (or to encourage other positive behaviors).