When All Else Fails, Bribing Kids to Eat Better

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Kid loving her veggies

It might be the one problem that all parents have in common, but whose solution is maddeningly hard to implement: Getting children to move beyond their howls of protest to adopt a behavior that's both good for them and their overall development. 

These traditional battleground behaviors include (but surely are not limited to) doing household chores, reading for "enjoyment" and the ol' favorite that has stood the test of time ... eating fruits and vegetables. 

Flummoxed parents have lost countless hours of sleep searching for solutions. And while some will stand firm, say all the right things to their kids and strive to be principled and convincing, there's another group which believes providing incentives -- critics would call it bribery -- is an effective way to go.

Parental websites and discussion boards have no shortage of vehement dissenters of this practice, who condemn parents for stooping so low and shirking their child-rearing responsibility. There's no consensus solution on this issue, and with each household situation and child being unique, there never will be one. So it's for each family to decide which approach is best for the kids.

But as for getting them to eat healthier, science has entered the fray with an approach that parents may want to consider: "paying" kids (since it can take many forms) to eat their fruits and vegetables in the short run, as a means to establishing better eating patterns over their lifetimes. As the thinking goes, all parents engage in some kind or kid-related bribery, even in small ways. Therefore, as opposed to fighting constantly or giving up completely on developing healthy eating habits, this approach is a worthy concession. Again, as the thinking goes.

To be sure, there are parents who are appalled of the very thought of paying their kids to undertake any behavior, and that's fair and to be expected. But other parents seeking a more peaceful approach (along with its potential drawbacks) might like learning about a study titled "Habit formation in children: Evidence from incentives for healthy eating."

The study, published in the Journal of Health Economics in January, concluded that when elementary school children were given a 25-cent token for eating vegetables or fruit at lunch, not only did they do so during the trial period but they maintained the healthy eating habit after it was over. 

"We find that these small incentives produced a dramatic increase in fruit and vegetable consumption during the incentive period and that this change in behavior was sustained for at least 2 months after the incentives ended," wrote George Loewenstein, Joseph Price and Kevin Volpp, the co-authors of the study. "We also find suggestive evidence that a longer intervention period produced a more sustained response once the rewards were removed."

The 18-month study included 8,000 kids from 40 schools in Utah, from the 1st through 6th grades. In all, researchers conducted "400,000 child-day observations, which tested whether providing short-run incentives can create habit formation in children," according to the study. "Over a 3- or 5-week period, students received an incentive for eating a serving of fruits or vegetables during lunch. Relative to an average baseline rate of 39%, providing small incentives doubled the fraction of children eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables. Two months after the end of the intervention, the consumption rate at schools remained 21% above baseline for the 3-week treatment and 44% above baseline for the 5-week treatment."

Kids who consumed at least one vegetable or fruit serving, "such as an apple, fresh peaches, pineapple, side salad or a banana, received a 25-cent token that could be redeemed at the school’s store, carnival or book fair," the Wall Street Journal reported. The reason a cash payment was avoided was, according to the authors, due to concerns by some educators that the money might be used "to purchase candy or other junk food after school." 

What's essential to keep in mind is that, as we all more or less know, parenting is an art form. It's quite nuanced, and depending on the situation's context and the language used, giving a child an incentive of this kind can, if handled poorly, come off looking like a payoff; detrimental while setting a bad precedent. But if done correctly it can be seen as worthwhile encouragement. 

What this also means that if a parent provides a financial incentive to undertake a task, it doesn't mean that that same approach can be applied all tasks. (Not to mention that parents would never want to create a framework where their kids would ask to be paid for everything they did, like going to school.)

There are bribes, and there are rewards. But if some well-meaning parents are out of ideas about how to get their children to eat better for years to come, this study's approach to the problem may prove, yes, rewarding.