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Bribing Kids vs. Rewarding Kids for Good Behavior: What's the Difference?

by Erin Schlicher, Parental Support Line Advisor
Bribing Kids vs. Rewarding Kids for Good Behavior: What's the Difference?

Many parents wonder what the difference is between a bribe and a reward. After all, in both instances, your child is getting something for doing what you want him to do. But when is this helpful in teaching him better behavior, and when is it harmful? Parental Support Line Advisor, Erin Schlicher explains.

“I’ll give you an Xbox if you’ll just clean your room!” 

It’s important to understand that bribery can become an ongoing pattern that ultimately teaches your child to act out to get what they want.

This parental plea might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s actually not as far off–base as you might think. During my nearly two years as a Parental Support Line Advisor, I heard many parents describe interactions with their kids in which they promised all manners of enticing treats and activities in exchange for behaving appropriately. Parents end up feeling as though they are desperately bribing their children to comply. Kids can come to expect something extra for simply executing their daily responsibilities, which can in turn lead to a false sense of entitlement.

It’s important to understand that bribery can become an ongoing pattern that ultimately teaches your child to act out to get what he wants. To make things even more confusing, attempting to curtail your child’s unruly actions by offering a bribe might actually seem like it’s working in the moment. Take the classic example of a parent who is dutifully trying to get her grocery shopping done while her kids are running wild through the store. The parent is frustrated and embarrassed, so she proposes a deal: if the kids will settle down and get through the shopping excursion, they will each be given a candy bar. Great, it seems to work! But wait…afterward, the parent is left feeling played, and she soon discovers that this tactic leaves her with a sense of powerlessness. This is because in this scenario, the acting-out child has learned another method of maintaining control. You can even think of this behavior as blackmail—“you better give me a sweet payoff, or I’m going to make you suffer!” Kids will likely continue to use this strategy as long as it is working for them.

Many understandably confused parents have asked me outright, “So what is the difference between giving a bribe for good behavior versus rewarding it?” I’ll tell you what I’ve told them: Generally, bribery occurs under duress—right smack in the middle of a situation in which your child has seemingly sprouted horns and a tail. It happens quickly, when all you want is to change your child’s behavior on the spot, so you offer him something that you had no previous intention of offering. It is a form of negotiating—and remember, over–negotiating puts the child in the driver’s seat. On the other hand, the effective use of rewards is quite different, because you are compensating your child for his good behavior, rather than being manipulated and extorted.

To understand how rewards work, it can be helpful to think in terms of how the work world operates. You do your job and complete the tasks that are required of your position, and your concrete reward is a paycheck. While there are numerous other ways in which work can be satisfying, the paycheck is the tangible form of a reward that you receive. For your child, motivation to please parents and teachers might apply more during different phases of development than others, but for the most part, children tend to be externally motivated by things they want or enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, most children want to stay in the good graces of their parents, but if they are given rewards regardless of how they behave, the incentive to practice new skills disappears. As I’ll explain next, James Lehman recommends that parents come up with a list of rewards with their child ahead of time. That way, when your child behaves in the grocery store, he knows ahead of time what his paycheck will be—and so will you.

Pairing James Lehman’s concept of Strategic Recognition and Affection with tangible rewards (the child’s version of the paycheck) is one of the most effective ways to reinforce appropriate behavior. This is the use of sincere praise, along with a genuine pat on the back when your child makes progress on something which is difficult for him. Next, add concrete rewards that are of a currency that your child values to complete the picture. You know what your child likes—maybe it’s video games, television, art supplies, or sleep–overs with friends. Try making a list of incentives that your child can earn on a daily basis, in addition to “bigger ticket” items that he could achieve over time. Again, have your child participate in the creation of this list. Helping to keep your child’s “eye on the prize” while serving as his supportive coach during moments when he begins to digress, can create significant results.

Whenever possible, determine most rewards ahead of time, be clear with behavioral expectations and do not forget the crucial teaching component. It is important to understand that we cannot expect kids to do something differently if they do not know how. Your child’s behavior can often be linked to the developmental stage he is moving through. Keeping this in mind is significant because it helps us soften our view. In other words, it’s not that kids are always deviously acting out—they may just be exercising an undesirable method of accomplishing a developmentally normal task. As adults, we have made it this far in the world because of what we have learned. Lend them your skills! You can guide your children to use more appropriate ways of checking off milestones. This might involve problem–solving conversations, role playing, or planned “field tests” that allow your kids to practice the new skills they are acquiring. Being a coach and teacher are two of the most effective hats you can wear as a parent.   

In the end, be kind to yourself—we parents are all still learning too! Taking a look at what behavior you might be reinforcing and how you are reinforcing it may lead to a change in your approach and yield better results. Remember that when you resort to bribery to control your child’s behavior, the price that you wind up paying is actually a lot higher than it may seem in the moment. Instead, require that your child earn reasonable rewards by taking care of his responsibilities and making positive strides in improving his behavior.

 


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Erin Schlicher coached parents on the Parental Support Line for the Total Transformation and Total Focus Programs for nearly two years. She holds a Masters in Counseling from Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Erin has worked with children and families in a helping capacity for more than ten years. She is also the proud mother of a delightful 9-month-old baby girl.

READER'S COMMENTS

Thank you for the seeds of wisdom,because my wife often bribes the girls to do what she needs them to do and one day i my self realized I was doing the same thing, but not any more. Thank you again so much.

Comment By : Scy

I just wanted to share another way to "reward". We(my wife daughter and I) knew we absolutely had to get a lot of work done this past weekend. With interest, energy and encouragement we all worked, had fun rested and had a perfectly wonderful weekend. Sun evening-while having a BBQ/picnic- I expressed how much I enjoyed our time and asked our daughter if she had to- she enthusiastically said yes. I said this is what can happen when we work together and cooperate and that we each got what we wanted and needed during this time. I expressed not only my appreciation but my willingness and desire to have/share this experience as often as possible. I have no doubt in my mind that our daughter will remember this "reward".

Comment By : visionquest

I believe the end result of good behavior is within all our reaches. I agree the satisfaction of working together on a project can be rewarding to all involved. However, that doesn't necessarily work with a five year old. It works with my 9 & 12 year old now. I always praised my children for their great behavior and occasionally rewarded, but when they misbehaved I showed them my disappointment and told them what I had expected of them. I learned how to set the boundaries before going into a situation so they knew what I expected of them in the end. They have to earn their treats with work not behavioir because good behavior is always expected in any situation and their reward is a job well done and acceptance from mom and dad with our hugs and praise.

Comment By : Luvnlilac

Ultimately, a "bribe" is given to entice someone to do something they're not supposed to do, such as offering a police officer $20 to not write you a speeding ticket. That's against the law! An incentive to reward good behavior is not a bribe. You just have to be careful with how and how often you do it, as described in the article, so that it is not overused, etc.

Comment By : Dr. Tim Caufield

My husband and I have set a $5 limit at Wal-Mart when we do our shopping. We tell our son before going in that if he doesn't behave he doesn't get his toy. Usually this is an action figure or a matchbox car, but to him he gets a new toy and we don't have to be out a lot of money, and the $5 is worth it to have a smooth trip to the store. Over the course of the trip, if he acts up we remind him if he doesn't stop he doesn't get the toy, and we stick to it if he continues to act up. Usually he is an angel by most standards and everyone leaves Wal-Mart happy and getting along.

Comment By : Amanda

My husband and I have set a $5 limit at Wal-Mart when we do our shopping. We tell our son before going in that if he doesn't behave he doesn't get his toy. Usually this is an action figure or a matchbox car, but to him he gets a new toy and we don't have to be out a lot of money, and the $5 is worth it to have a smooth trip to the store. Over the course of the trip, if he acts up we remind him if he doesn't stop he doesn't get the toy, and we stick to it if he continues to act up. Usually he is an angel by most standards and everyone leaves Wal-Mart happy and getting along.

Comment By : Amanda

excellent article. I would like to share something that worked for my daughter when she was between 3 and 6 (after that she kind of grew out of it and now we are working on the next good idea). We used a method of both short and long term goals. We wanted a plan that would drive good daily behavior and reward it, but also reward long term consistency. What we did was created a sticker chart. We used excel and on the column put in the day of the week and on the rows put in the action (e.g. got dressed in the morning, green card at school, etc). Note: I remember something Jimmy Johnson (football coach ) once said... Say positive things. It's not "we don't want to fumble" it's "we want to hold on to the ball"... same goes for kids goals. We never put in something like "no red card" it was "got a green card", or "didn't have to be told twice" it was "listened the first time... Ok so back to the point... Now you have your sticker chart. If your child earns every sticker that day then they get a reward (extra book, 15 min on the Wii, something not to big and something that can be given instantly upon reviewing their daily behavior). At the end of the week if they earned all their stickers for the week (or some amount your are comfortable with) then they get a big prize, go to a move or something (or if you are a Kardashian maybe a new Benz). Good luck...

Comment By : MacD

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