In Pitching Veggies to Kids, Less Is More

Matt Richtel, NY Times writer of the above-titled article, tells of research that goes along with the video I have attached here (The video is Halloween-themed, but fits perfectly here nonetheless.). In the article, he writes “One of the fiercest marketing battles in the world takes place in kitchens and at dining room tables across the world. The sellers are parents, trying everything to persuade their children to eat their vegetables.”

Richtel goes on to share new research which shows why parents — and food marketers — are barking up the wrong tree by trying to convince young children that food is “yummy,” “healthy,” or “good for you.” Apparently, kids are on to those of us who are trying to teach lessons around food. The problem, Richtel states, is the pitch: It is too aggressive, even at its most well-meaning and heartfelt. The best way to pitch food to children, the research finds, is to present it with no marketing message whatsoever. According to Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the research paper’s co-author, “You just need to give them the food. You mess them up by giving all kinds of messages.”

Richtel paints a broader picture when he tells us that the paper, to be published in October in the Journal of Consumer Research, offers insight not only into kids’ decision-making around food, but also “into the powerful and counterintuitive ways that overzealous marketing can misfire.” In the research, young children who received no information or “marketing” about eating Wheat Thins or carrots ate more than the children who heard that the foods were healthy or yummy.

Why was no message the best message, Richtel asks? He and researchers offers the following possibilities: 1) the “dilution effect” — the watering down of a marketing message that makes too many claims, and 2) if children think food is good for them, it can’t also taste good.

Then Richtel asks, “So what to do?” He ends his article by writing “Let children make their own decision with a major caveat: Choose what food to put in front of them. Don’t pitch, but also: ‘Don’t let them do the shopping,’ Professor Fishbach said.”

This research is a fine example of what I’ve written about so many times in my blog: teaching babies, toddlers and young children to make good choices, whether they be choices in nutrition/diet, communication/language, or social-emotional skills, requires that parents’ and caregivers’ actions speak louder than their words. Want respectful kids who are good listeners? Show them from the day they are born what it looks like to be kind, respectful and a good listener. Desire healthy and strong kids? Eat a balanced, nutritious diet and exercise regularly in front of a child from the moment Baby comes home from the hospital. Desire emotionally intelligent children who understand others’ emotions and manage their own emotions well? Be the most emotionally intelligent parent or caregiver you can be with family, friends, neighbors, community members and colleagues every day of your life.

The most important point is that children are learning from us right from the start. The children in one experiment in the new research were 4 and 5 years old. By this young age, children made choices to eat (or not eat) healthy snacks more often when there wasn’t “preaching” about why they should do so. It seemed like a good enough idea to them on their own. They saw right through adults trying to convince them to do one thing or another (I am reminded here of times I’ve seen parents try to convince or sell their child on the idea of saying “I’m sorry” when the child clearly doesn’t want to or won’t say it.). Children by 4 or 5 don’t just learn to make behavioral choices overnight based on what seems like reasonable, smart or wise behavior in others. They won’t do well in school or behave a certain way just because adults tell them so. Children won’t be convinced of much, even when given the aggressive, hard sell. What it takes is the grown-ups around them, during the first 3 years of their lives, indirectly teaching and demonstrating what they need to know by the age of 4 or 5. For babies and toddlers, there is no more powerful learning experience than observation during those first 3 years to truly prepare children for school and life.

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