If you read this I will give you a cookie

Published 12:11 am Friday, August 26, 2011

My son Gibson ate so much baby food carrots, sweet potatoes and squash as an infant that he had a noticeable George Hamilton tan. We checked once and over a period of a week he was averaging 400 percent above the recommended daily allowance of beta carotine for an infant.

Now, he won’t give orange veggies a second look.

I told myself before I got into this parenting gig that I would never ever bribe my child — that when it came time to face the meltdowns, the temper tantrums that I would be strong. I would be like a presidential candidate looking for votes. I would not give in, no matter how loud and difficult the situation became.

Email newsletter signup

Nobody told me that all children have a secret weapon, waiting for the right place and time to strike. Beneath the baby smooth skin and innocent eyes lies a tiny human being who knows what he wants and how to get it. Even at two years old they know how to create situations of urgency. In a sense they know how to hold their parents hostage. They know how to demand a bribe.

The current standoff in the Hillyer house is at the dinner table.

“He will eat when he eats,” veteran parents tell me when I describe the tense moments when I tell Gibson to eat his vegetables, his chicken — heck, anything other than the three or four pieces of buttered bread he stuffs in his mouth each night.

Then the mouth clamps shut and the pleading ensues. Worries that your child may never eat anything healthy again lead to frantic searching for any possible solution.

Desperation leads to promises of cake, cookies and dessert for just one bite.

What promises of never bribing my child?

Recently, I read that scientists have shown that bribing can be an effective way to raising a child. After reading their claims, I am convinced that such tactics could go a long way to not only making the Hillyer house a happy place, but make dinner tables across the world happy places, too.

And it all starts with carrots. British scientist Jane Wardle and her colleagues recently tackled the age-old question of how to encourage kids to eat their vegetables. She recruited hundreds of 4- to 6-year-olds, and asked each to taste six vegetables, including carrots, celery and cabbage. She had the children rank them, and then selected each kid’s “target’’ veggie from the bottom half of their list.

Over the course of two weeks, Wardle compared doing nothing with three different strategies to getting the children to eat their veggies. First researchers simply asked the children to try the vegetable. Their second strategy included lavish praise, like “Brilliant, you’re a great taster!’’

Lastly, children were offered a small a sticker for their efforts.

The rewards, according to the scientists, enticed kids to try their vegetables.

Bribing worked in the short term, but what about the long term?

Turns out the biggest surprise for scientists was that, three months later, the sticker children were still eating substantially more of their vegetables than their counterparts. The children who received verbal praise also were eating more, but less than the children with stickers. More interesting, perhaps, is that the children learned to truly like their vegetables, Wardle concluded.

Turns out the carrot on a stick is not a bad thing after all.

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of the Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.