Professionals recommend bribery to incentivize children. Really.
Inspired by an NPR/Freakonomics story about bribery in which an economist gives each of his four children the opportunity to earn “a lot of money” for eating fresh fish in Hawaii every day during their vacation, I decided to try to bribe my preschooler with trinkets to try new-to-him foods. After all, the radio story revealed that children were more motivated by prizes than anything else (like knowing that good foods build healthy bodies). Picky eater? Bribery? Why not?
The prize I laid out was a plastic dinosaur for each new-to-him food. For roughly two weeks, I presented him with his dinner along with 1-3 toy dinos for trying eligible foods. He didn’t earn anything for eating applesauce or cheese quesadillas, but he could have for trying a bite of a grape (yes, a GRAPE!!!), which he declined.
If I’m totally honest, you should know I wanted to keep this bribery program running long enough to for him to earn 72 dinosaurs, no matter the duration. My friend, the engineer, calculated that he could try seven different foods at ten times each and I was overly optimistic when I purchased them. Instead, I had to cut the experiment off after 14 days because it was such a colossal failure that Whitney was losing her patience with me. Yes, Whitney.
In 14 days, Sawyer earned only four dinosaurs and two of them were total cheats on my part.
Where did we begin?
Sawyer is not your typical picky eater, if there is such a thing. He approaches unfamiliar foods with anxiety and nervousness. If he’s going to try it, he might sit in my lap cowering and retching before he fully tastes the thing and declares that it is not bad.
Got that? He actually likes most foods that he tries, but he is unwilling to try new things. Ugh. So frustrating.
According to family legend, this was never more true than his approach to ice cream. Once we felt like he was old enough for a taste, he refused. He was offered ice cream many times, until he finally — nervously — agreed to open his mouth for it. Of course, he loved it. By the next time we had ice cream, he had already forgotten that it was a positive experience. So he refused it another few times. This usually happens about three times before he remembers that he liked any food in the past.
It is also worth noting that he has two big brothers who willingly eat food like salmon and kale salad with smiles on their faces and we all sit down to family dinner most nights of the week, where everyone eats the same thing.
When Sawyer decided, for the second time, that broccoli was pretty good, we made a video together so I can show him next time he is reluctant. It was his idea.
Sawyer was largely unmoved by the dinosaur bribery scheme. He tasted what he was going to try anyway so we did have some slight progress toward trying and liking new foods. He acted like he wanted the toys but never enough to move the needle. The four dinosaurs I gave out were for the following:
- a dessert with honey, raisins, and dates — after days of no progress, I wanted to make it easier for him (and me!) to succeed. But c’mon.
- homemade cheese pizza — the crust was unusual so I thought he might not eat it, but awarding a bribe for a kid eating cheese pizza is embarrassing.
- a cheeseburger — this was HUGE for us, real progress toward a new food. Interestingly, we were not at home when he ate it so I think it is very likely he didn’t have dinosaurs on the brain.
- broccoli — and he said he liked it. Notice he’s in my lap because of his anxiety but quickly wanted to make himself a video because broccoli rocks.
Other days, he ate all the foods that were not dino-eligible or Nothing At All. Yes, multiple days in this game, my two-year old went to bed with no dinner.
What did I learn?
Was it a waste of time? Was it fun for me because I am a data geek? Was it nice to get positive feedback from other friends with picky eaters? Yes, yes, and yes.
I enjoyed trying something new on this kid but, all in all, I only passed out four dinosaurs. I don’t think that bribery changed Sawyer’s behavior in a significant way, but Whitney and her family think I need to offer a better prize.