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? parent coach, Erin Schlicher explains.

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

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 parent coach, 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 they want.

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.

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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.

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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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