Health and Rewards for Kids: Striking a Balance

Guest post by Sloan McKinney

Health and Rewards for Kids: Striking a Balance

Raising children isn’t easy. You have to feed and bathe them, educate them, teach them right from wrong, instill values and morals, and motivate them to make good choices. There is a lot of debate about the latter of these, which leads to the seemingly never-ending debate over whether or not children should be rewarded. Specifically, the argument ignites when discussing whether sweet treats should be used as a reward.

One side of the argument believes rewarding children for positive behaviors or achievements has negative effects, with three distinct arguments being offered. The first is that offering edible rewards, especially sugary ones, can lead to health risks such as weight gain, cavities, increased risk for type II diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels. Rewarding with candy or desserts can lead to emotional eating, which can then further perpetuate those health risks. Finally, rewarding with sweets can encourage an appetite for sugar and overall poor eating habits, ultimately leading back to increased risk to their physical well-being.

Another frequent argument is that giving rewards is nothing more than bribery. However, there is a distinct difference between the two, resulting in very different outcomes. Bribery most often happens during a time of duress or crisis. Think of it as desperate negotiating to get a negative behavior to stop immediately. For example, your child is pitching a holy temper tantrum in the grocery store. You absolutely must complete your shopping for the ingredients needed for the dinner party you are hosting in less than three hours, so it is mandatory that she quit screaming and allow you to finish your shopping (whew!). You are likely to bribe her with whatever she wants if she will just stop the behavior NOW. Lo and behold, the cookie works, she quiets down, and you get your shopping done. The problem with this in the long run is that you didn’t control the situation, your child manipulated it. She got exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it, and you were played. This will likely become a strategy she will use again because it worked for her. But it doesn’t modify her behavior in a positive way; it reinforces the negative action.

Rewards, on the other hand, are not discussed and negotiated in the heat of the moment. Ideally, tangible rewards are laid out ahead of time and are an incentive for appropriate behaviors.  They are concrete “payment” for following through with what is previously laid out in your expectations, much along the lines of adults receiving a paycheck for doing their work. Instead of being a bribe to stop a negative behavior, it is a positive consequence for doing the right thing. When coupled with your praise and encouragement, rewards can be highly effective in promoting similar behaviors in the future.

For a reward system to work, some thought and planning needs to go into it. Let your child help create a list of possible rewards to lend credibility to the reward system and help motivate her to earn them. Rewards can range from a special activity with you, to a sweet treat or a favorite outing. The key is to balance the reward system with lots of discussion about appropriate behaviors, teaching and modeling your expectations to earn the rewards, and keeping the rewards reasonable in both frequency and cost. If they don’t earn them, do not give the reward, or the system will be invalid and ineffective.

One side of the argument believes rewarding children for positive behaviors or achievements has negative effects, with three distinct arguments being offered. The first is that offering edible rewards, especially sugary ones, can lead to health risks such as weight gain, cavities, increased risk for type II diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels. Rewarding with candy or desserts can lead to emotional eating, which can then further perpetuate those health risks. Finally, rewarding with sweets can encourage an appetite for sugar and overall poor eating habits, ultimately leading back to increased risk to their physical well-being.

With positive verbal reinforcement, thoughtful planning, and firm boundaries, a reward system can be a powerful tool to help shape your child’s behaviors. It can help instill motivation, purposeful intent, and acceptable social skills that can be carried over into all aspects of your child’s life.

 

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