The harm in bribing kids with food

Using food as a reward is common, but it's not exactly expert-approved.

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Photo: Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

If I’m being honest, not a day — actually not an hour — goes by when I’m not bribing my two-year-old, Peyton, with food. “Stop taking your sister’s stuff, Peyton, or you won’t get any treats… Take three more bites of your broccoli, Peyton, or you won’t get any treats… Quit purposely spilling your apple juice all over my hardwood floors, Peyton, or you won’t get any treats.”

For our kids, the first grandchildren in the family, the treats already overfloweth, and consist of everything from Smarties to Happy Meals. My thinking, as a busy mother of two, is that I’ll ride the food-bribery train until better enticements — like not going to the park, not watching their favourite TV shows, not going on dates, etc. — present themselves.

That said, I’m not surprised when Gail Bell, a parent educator in Calgary, tells me that my carrot-dangling technique isn’t the best way to get my youngest tot (current president of the Terrible-Twos Guild) to behave.

“Bribing children with anything is never a good idea,” Bell says. I ask if it’s sometimes OK in moderation, but she says no. “Bribing is the parent using an external measure of control over the child. It’s more appropriate to say, ‘You need to put your toys away, or your behaviour is telling me you’re choosing not to have those toys to play with for awhile.’ Then follow through and take the toys away.”

Read more: Do rewards work? >

Toronto parenting educator Beverley Cathcart-Ross explains it this way: “Bribing is the equivalent to buying a child off. It sends negative messages to your child — it tells them, ‘Mom and Dad don’t have confidence in my ability to co-operate.’ It also conditions kids to feel entitled, as if there needs to be something in it for them or they won’t contribute,” she says.

Christina Dennis, a mom of two in Stony Plain, Alta., has gotten used to bribing her girls with food. “I think it started with the ‘eat your veggies so you can have ice cream’ trick when my eldest daughter was two years old,” she says. “Now, the only way I can make it through the grocery store is to tell them if they behave, they’ll get a bakery cookie at the end. Works like a charm.” Although Dennis says she’s tried both stickers and reward charts as alternatives, she keeps going back to food, because it’s relatively inexpensive and offers instant gratification. “I’ve used homemade snacks as incentives, too,” she says.

Read more: Negotiation vs. bribery >

Michelle Stemmler, a mom of one in St. Marys, Ont., says she tries to steer clear of bribing her daughter, Violet, with indulgences. “I don’t want my toddler to associate food as a reward for doing something good, or even as a by-product of being bad,” she says. “I want to teach her healthy eating habits, and I think that’s a hard thing to do when food becomes a negotiating tactic.” Still, when Stemmler needs to keep Violet on her best behaviour, like when she brings her to her workplace (a family business), she brings a cereal mixture of puffs, fibre bits and toasted Os. “My husband calls it baby crack,” she jokes.

Cathcart-Ross is adamant that using food as a reward creates multiple negative side effects. “There are body weight issues that stem from this — the creation of sugar addicts, emotional eating throughout life, diabetes and obesity.” So instead of telling your tot she’ll get dessert if she takes her medicine, Cathcart-Ross says it’s the parent’s job to find that fine balance: You need to set boundaries, but you also don’t want to cause your toddler to push back at those limits. Easier said than done, but it’s worth a shot.

A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 issue with the headline, “Here comes the bribe”, p. 84.

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