How to Reward Picky Eaters for Being Picky

Sep 11, 2013 by

My daughter the psychology major taught me an important parenting lesson the other day.

She was an intern on a research study on children this summer. The study was looking into the ways children learn verbs. So for several weeks, the research team brought in children ages about 18 months to about four, one by one, with their parents, to be tested and observed, to get data for the study.

One day, a little boy about two years old came in with his dad. Little Josh refused to interact at all with the researchers. He acted extremely shy, burying his face in dad’s chest. He wouldn’t cooperate in any way. On and on, the researchers, along with the dad, desperately attempted to lessen his discomfort and entice him to go along with the program. Finally, the dad stepped up and said to Josh, “If you will do what they want you to do, I will take you to McDonald’s to play and eat french fries afterwards.”

Instantly, little Josh was all sweetness and light. He dropped the shy act and went along compliantly, blandly, with the activities of the study.

I didn’t really see clearly what happened there, but my daughter turned on the light for me.

“I wanted to tell that dad,” she said, “‘You have just insured that your kid will not want to do whatever you ask him to do in the future. You just rewarded him for refusing to cooperate. You’ve taught him to not cooperate.”

Indeed. What can the dad expect to happen next time? Will the child be likely to be more cooperative or less next time?  What motive has he been given to cooperate? Noncooperation is infinitely more profitable than cooperation. He’s been trained to refuse to do whatever he’s being asked to do and to see what he can get out of the situation. It’s pretty clear to me that the dad had already taught Josh this lesson well before they came in that day. That is why Josh started out with noncooperation, and required a reward for cooperation.

That’s right.

I’m against using rewards with kids for anything, for about a million reasons. But this single phenomenon seems to me to be reason enough for not using rewards. How to make sure you get a reward whenever you sense that your parents or somebody else wants you to do something? Refuse to do it until the reward becomes worth it. I feel sorry for this kid’s teachers in the future.

What about if we reward a child for eating? What happens then?

Of the half a million excellent reasons not to reward a child for eating something, here are a few big ones:

  • It increases the desire for the reward (let’s say a brownie), because it’s positioned as a “reward.”
  • Being rewarded to eat something (let’s say plain steamed broccoli, which is pretty yucky), just solidifies that food’s status as something you wouldn’t want to eat. It decreases even further the actual desire to eat the target food, which is positioned as “the icky thing you eat to get the yummy thing.”
  • Rewards are a form of pressure or force on the child to eat against his will, which tends to increase resistance rather than increase the desire to eat. Stronger forms of force feeding will get you arrested and charged with child abuse. The difference is only in degree of force.
  • It’s unnatural. A child who’s healthy and normal and hasn’t been eating the wrong foods and/or at the wrong time will be eager to eat at meal time. Something’s wrong here. Rewarding for eating doesn’t address the causes.
  • It’s abnormal behavior: If a child isn’t eating, there’s a reason. Not eating is not normal. Requiring a child to eat is never the answer. The child needs to be understood and helped, or parents need to make some changes in their home structure and they way they are presenting food.
  • Rewarding a child for eating is also abnormal behavior for a parent.
  • Pressure on a child who has a feeding problem only aggravates the problem, increasing their revulsion and negative feelings about eating.

Eating is a completely different situation than times when you want your child to do or not do something, however. Actual eating should never become a question of cooperation or not. Eating is not equal to behavior. Nobody should ever eat because someone else wants them to eat. The ONLY reason to eat is because we are hungry and we want to eat. We parents can want to their heart’s content, and desire that our children eat with all our hearts, but that is our problem, not the child’s. Our desire should in no way be the reason or basis for their eating. It should never be a question of obedience (“Eat it because I’m the dad and I told you to.”). Eating is not right or wrong or nice or mean, anymore than wearing a coat if you’re cold or not wearing one if you’re hot. Being rude or disrespectful at the table is an issue of obedience to address with a child, but not the actual eating. Once the parent has provided only good food options to eat, taught the child to expect food only at mealtime, and taught the child how to behave at the table (I know those are very large areas to address), the actual eating is up to the child. Completely.We can arrange for them to be hungry, but we should never make them eat. There is never a good reason to pressure a child to eat by expressing our desire for them to eat.

If your child knows that he comes out ahead by refusing to eat, you are digging yourself in further. You are guaranteeing that your child will see what he can get out of your desire to get him to eat. You are not reinforcing normal eating; you are reinforcing refusal to eat. Whenever your child sees you want him to eat something, you’ve just given him a good reason to NOT eat it, and instead, take advantage of it, and you: “Let’s see what I can get my mom and dad to do for me first.” Even if your child actually wants to eat, he’s learning to bide his time, delay gratification for the bigger win, in the worst way.

We manipulate them, so they manipulate us. What goes around, comes around.

In this case, normal eating doesn’t get a reward; it’s abnormal eating, that is refusing to eat, that’s rewarded. If you want more refusal and pickiness, rewards are a great way to get there. Rewards reinforce pickiness.

Kids aren’t dumb. They are cool headed and intuitive. They aren’t scared and worried and fretful like their parents are about their own health and well-being.  They aren’t blinded by their adoration of anybody’s adorableness. So, they see right away: what’s clearly a better deal? If you do what dad wants, you get nothing. If you don’t do what dad wants, you will get a prize before you have to do it. A minimally clever child will consciously or unconsciously refuse to do everything you ask until a prize is forthcoming.  If you start out right away offering a reward for doing anything, you better have a big chestful of gifts that you are ready to hand out all day long. You have just gotten yourself into an enormous mess.

I saw the best illustration of this concept on Facebook the other day, which I wish I could find again now, but it was a meme, a picture of a kid sitting on the toilet. He was saying, “I don’t always poop in the toilet, but when I do, I make sure I get an awesome reward for doing so.”

That’s right. “Mom wants me to use the toilet. If I don’t use it, I can extort from her a goodie. I think I will work this for awhile. If she starts getting slack with the prizes, it’s time to revert to pooping in my pants.”

It’s just like the dog that wakes you up at midnight, bugging you. To get him to leave you alone, you give him a treat. What have you done? You’ve rewarded the dog for waking you up. Tomorrow night, he’ll be back.  He thinks you want him to wake you up at midnight. You’ve basically told him that you do, by giving a reward. It’s a very, very dumb and short-term, counterproductive “solution” to the problem. It only “works” for a moment, while making the problem all the worse. It ensures that the problem never ends. As Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, says, “Kids are not pets to be trained.” But you can train them to act like pets.

So, if you want your child to have no motivation for doing what you hope they’ll do, like using the toilet or eating vegetables or whatever it is, offer a reward if they do. Then don’t offer the reward, and see what happens. If you want your child trained to have an automatic response to balk at any requests, just start offering a reward when they balk.

Related post: When Picky Eating Leads to Abnormal Parenting

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