Parenting fashions come and go. We have moved from the authoritarian approach that many of my generation grew up with, to a gentler, perhaps more child-focused way of doing things. Reward charts are our go-to response to behaviour we don't want, and they are grounded in a behavioural approach to parenting that has been with us for some years now.
It goes like this: we reward the behaviours we want to see more of (maybe through praise, attention, reward charts or other incentives) and we do the opposite with behaviours we wish our kids would drop. By and large - at least in the short term - this works, although it has been criticised for moving children away from value-driven decision making, amongst other things.
You want your kids to tidy away their toys? You reward them with a sticker on their 'tidy chart'. You want them to get ready for school in the morning with speed an efficiency? You pop a marble in their jar. All of this is about EXTRINSIC not INTRINSIC motivation; it comes from the outside not the inside. And motivating kids to eat in this way, is a huge mistake.
This is because it comes from a misconception of what eating is. Eating is not a behaviour to be modified, it is (or should be) a fundamental response to our bodies' signals. I wrote recently about Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility model. This approach to feeding is based on a crucial understanding that we need to help children to self-regulate; to eat in response to their bodies, not because of the adults around them.
Every time we reward a child for eating, we are contributing to the following problems:
- We are increasing the potential for food to be used as a means of testing boundaries, because we are making it so clear that eating certain things is a behaviour we want from our children. If it is up to them what they eat (from within the context of the foods we make available) they are much less likely to engage in attention seeking behaviour, using food.
- We are piling on the pressure. There is a lot of research showing that applying pressure to a food-cautious child will make picky eating worse. It raises anxiety levels and that has a negative impact on eating. However gently we approach reward charts, at some level, the child will be experiencing this as pressure.
- We are interrupting their ability to self-regulate. We need to help children tune in to their body's signals (something many picky eaters struggle with) and listen to their appetite. Pushing them to eat because they will get a reward is not supportive of this at all.
- We are focusing heavily on their eating. It is pretty hard to have a meal that is both relaxed and heavily focused on a child's eating. Children do better when they feel that they are in control. They can calmly make decisions about what they will eat, when they are not in the spot-light. This empowers and relaxes them, which actually makes their eating better.
- We are maybe not even helping them learn to like new foods in the long term. While research points to short term success with reward systems, there is also evidence of things being made worse in the long term
For me, this last point gets to the crux of this question. In order to support psychologically healthy eating, we need to prioritise a positive relationship with food over the short term goal of what is consumed on any particular day or at any particular meal. It's better that your child misses that extra bite of cabbage that would have earned him a sticker, than feels pressured and eats it because he wants the sticker and he wants to please you.
I understand why reward charts seem like a good option - parenting a picky eater is really hard, and for many parents, it is extremely stressful and anxiety-provoking too. Anything that feels like it is giving you back a modicum of control reduces those difficult feelings. Take a step back though. Get your child's health, weight and growth checked to see if you need to be as worried as you are and learn as much as you can about how to support a child's long term positive relationship with food.