As a parent trying to raise healthy kids it can be tough to avoid food rewards, especially since they’re so common in our society. While the trend has been changing, old habits die hard. That’s why I came up with this list of non-food rewards for children that they’ll actually want to earn.
Think about it: eat your dinner, desert is the reward. Work hard at soccer, get a treat. Get a needle, get a lollipop. You get the picture here. While it’s not all the time, we still rely on food rewards, especially “treats” (see), way too often as parents in North America.
As someone on a weight loss journey myself, I feel it’s especially important to avoid tying food to the reward centres of our brains. I’m pretty confident that hasn’t helped my issues with food, and I’m working to avoid (or at least reduce) passing on those issues to my kids.
Why Kids Need Rewards
That being said, I am definitely in the pro rewarding kids camp. Just like adults, kids deserve a little something to say “congratulations” for their hard work, compliance, or otherwise good behaviour.
As adults we naturally do this for ourselves: if you’ve ever lit a candle and read a book after cleaning or bought yourself a new outfit after reaching a fitness goal you’ve given yourself a reward for good behaviour. Let’s be real here. Rewards are fun!
Fun, and they make us feel good too. Naturally our brains will want to seek out more of that good feeling – which essentially trains us to work hard to get the reward.
It might sound like a bribe, but it isn’t; incentives are different. When done in a healthy way, they’re a good thing to stay motivated.
Kids are just learning this so they need even more incentives to reinforce what we’re teaching.
Healthy Rewards vs Food
In my opinion, a healthy reward is anything that is enjoyed in moderation, doesn’t lead to bad habits, and won’t cause mental health issues (including eating disorders).
Examples of healthy rewards include small toys, fun activities, and yes, even a bit of extra screen time. It really depends on the situation: rewards should fit with the behaviours you’re trying to encourage as naturally as possible.
A food reward is getting McDonalds after passing a math test or rewarding a cleaned plate with dessert.
Now that doesn’t mean you should give your kid dessert even if they didn’t touch their broccoli; actions can still have consequences and dessert can be lost. It just should be a reward for eating. Make sense?
What About Healthy Food?
I think there’s a place to incorporate some foods into a reward if that’s something that really motivates them. For example, rewarding a kid who’s behaved all week at daycare with a trip to the berry picking farm is perfectly healthy and reasonable.
As always, use your judgement as as parent here.
Can I Never Give My Kids Junk For Fun?
Certainly not! But make it a fun activity, not a reward for something. It’s not the occasional treat that sets a child up for bad habits, it’s tying that treat to incentive/reward areas of habit and psychology.
Non-Food Reward Ideas to Incentivize Kids for All Ages
Now that we’ve established what you should and shouldn’t do it can be super hard to break out of that food reward habit. What motivates a child more than a piece of candy? Not only are they inviting, treats are also inexpensive and readily on hand.
To motivate kids without food, you’ll have to get creative. Here’s some ideas.
Activities They Enjoy
This will vary depending on your child’s age. Older kids can delay gratification easier and understand larger rewards, where young kids (especially toddlers) need something more immediate. I tend to use big activities as big rewards, so that’s your “good grades” or “finally potty trained” type of thing.
Younger kids are better in the here and now, so that might be simple “if you clean up your toys quickly we’ll have time to go to the park” rewards.
These can easily replace the small treats in your child’s life, providing they like toys. Some fun ideas include mini rubber ducks, small “surprise” toys, and fidget toys.
Don’t underestimate the power of this one. My kids absolutely live for the stickers are the doctor’s office. You can get so many kinds now, including ones of your child’s favourite characters – so there’s bound to be something that makes them happy out there.
Art and Craft Supplies
This is another one that’s relatively inexpensive and can be a wide range of things. Younger kids will appreciate Play-doh and crayons, while older kids might like specific hobby supplies.
This one works even on my daughter who’s almost 16 and loves making bracelets. She can never have too many beads, it seems.
This isn’t for everyone, but we do live in a digital world so it’s important to teach children early on how to manage their responsibilities when screens are around. As an adult I can’t go play video games or watch TV until my chores are done, and I absolutely use that as motivation.
If that’s what makes your kid tick, and you’re OK with it, do what works.
I’m actually not big on tying money to specific things (I prefer to give an allowance as a money-teaching too), but there are definitely times where giving a child a financial reward makes sense.
If your child has gone over and above in an area that’s helped you earn more money or save money (eg. by babysitting a sibling), giving them a “bonus” for their hard work is a great motivator. Just be weary of doing it too often or they may expect it.
A Reward Chart
If no one reward seems to make sense reward charts are always great motivators. Especially if you’re working on specific skills or goals.
Have your child work towards a variety of rewards that they choose: just make sure they’re attainable so they can stay motivated.
Tip: collect a bunch of smaller rewards and let your child choose a “prize” as one of the incentives. Then you don’t need to guess what they want.
Tips to Make Rewarding Children More Effective
Now that you have the rewards, how do you make sure they land? Kids are never going to appreciate everything, but in my experience after almost 16 years of parenting (over half of that with 5 kids to contend with) the best way approach is to be extremely excited about the reward.
Seriously, even it’s just a sticker, hype. it. up. Your kids will get hyped too, I promise. Yes, I even do this to my teenagers.
The other thing I do is always make sure they know what the reward is for. Even if it seems obvious, I make sure to reiterate in clear language what they did to earn it. After all, I want to positively reinforce that behaviour.
To Recap, Here’s How to Reward Kids Without Food
- Catch them doing good behaviour (or reaching a milestone on their reward chart).
- Verbally praise the good behaviour.
- Offer the child an age-appropriate, non-food reward.
- Get them all hyped up for the gift, even if it’s small.
- Remind the child again while you give the reward why they earned it.
- Celebrate their success with them and engage as they enjoy their reward.
Hopefully this helps you keep your kids motivated! While it’s not foolproof, these tips and non-food reward ideas are the best way to help motivate kids to follow the rules and make positive changes in their lives.
I want to leave you with one last piece of advice. If you find yourself using food as a reward, seriously consider making changes to break that cycle. If you’re modelling poor behaviour your kids will naturally follow – even if you don’t practice it with them.
Likewise, make sure you’re modelling rewards for yourself too. You deserve to get a little something for the hard work you do – even if it’s just a few minutes to put your feet up.
If the kids are old enough, you can even explain; not only is it a great learning opportunity, they can also work on their empathy skills. You never know, they might just surprise you.