Food as Reward / Junk Food

Dr. Suess’s Junk Food Whack-a-mole


The latest in junk food whack-a-mole? Cupcakes at school to celebrate Dr. Suess’s birthday and Read Across America Day.  As if celebrating students’ birthdays didn’t already cover cupcakes in class many times over.  What is it about reading that brings out the junk food?

It started in 1985 with Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! incentive program which rewards young readers with free pizzas.  For many years, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) has urged parents and educators to end their school’s involvement.  Co-founder Dr. Susan Linn explains why this program has no place in schools.

BOOK IT! epitomizes everything that’s wrong with corporate-sponsored programs in school.  In the name of education, it promotes junk food consumption to a captive audience of children;  turns teachers into Pizza Hut promoters; and undermines parents by positioning family visits to Pizza Hut as an integral component of raising literate children.

Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve, had this to say about it.

If I were trying to design a program that would undermine children’s interest in books, lead them to read in a shallow fashion, and convince them to avoid challenging texts, I honestly don’t think I could top Book It.  Dangling pizza in front of kids as a reward for reading, much as one might use treats to house-train a puppy, reflects a completely discredited theory of motivation.  Indeed, by teaching children that reading is just a means to an end, the program is likely to be not merely ineffective but positively harmful.

So in addition to all the problems associated with using food as a reward, studies show this practice may even be counterproductive to the goal of instilling a love of reading.

Students who received a reward for reading subsequently showed less interest in doing so (on three separate measures of intrinsic motivation) than those who received nothing. The only exception in this study was that children who received books as a reward remained as interested in reading as those who didn’t get a reward at all.

In a society that associates food with love, more food is seen as more love.  So it’s no surprise to see the increase in junk food linked to reading as educators seek  to motivate students. Instead of giving Dr. Suess cupcakes and pizza to kids whose lives are already overloaded with junk food, keep this in mind:

The best way to reward children for reading is to give them more great things to read and more time to read them.

One thought on “Dr. Suess’s Junk Food Whack-a-mole

  1. Sadly, this is how food manufacturers and fast food brands market to children: through schools. The brands have money and resources that the schools badly need, and sometimes are willing to take, no matter where they come from. Many school administrators don’t connect the free resource to the message it sends to children.

    If our schools want to participate in teaching our children how to live a healthy life, then those need to be the priority messages every day, across campus. We can’t have playgrounds sponsored by soda brands and assemblies put on my fast food mascots. Parents need to let school administrators know how they feel and ask that they support healthy lessons.

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