Rewards Vs Bribery

Over the past few years I’ve been hearing much about the ineffectiveness or even unhealthiness of bribing children to behave. I can’t agree with this more. As a parent there is no value or little learning opportunity for our child if we simply give them what they want in order for them behave or to complete some task. However, rewarding children who behave well is a different kettle of fish. While the action of bribing a child closely resembles that of rewarding a child, there is a very powerful distinction which must be made.

  • Bribery is paying BEFORE behavior is delivered.
  • Rewarding is paying AFTER behavior is delivered (also known as positive reinforcement).

I’m sure we’ve all seen, experienced or participated in bribing children to behave. Think of the screaming kid in the supermarket, or the kid whining for something they want. How often is that child given a toy or a lolly to quiet them down. Sure it’s understandable, the harassed Mom just wants to finish her grocery shopping, complete her errand or whatever else is needing to be done – but it’s not healthy. This pattern of misbehavior or refusing to cooperate, only to be rewarded, teaches the child that they can get what they want by behaving badly. Paying in advance for the “promise” of behaving well, gives the child the opportunity to refuse to deliver on their promise.

While this pattern of using bribes can be convenient and usually works in the short-term, it will become addictive for the child and for the parent quickly becomes ineffective.

However, when we talk about offering rewards to your children we are reinforcing a positive behavior AFTER delivery. We are not bribing or “buying” a behavior that has yet to be shown. An example of this process of reward might be “after you do your homework, you can watch some TV” or “you can have dessert after eating all your dinner” or even the practice of a teacher handing out gold stars to the students making a good attempt at their school work.

A useful parallel to think about is us adults being paid at the end of the week for performing the duties that we have agreed to and are expected of us. Offering rewards to children for completing certain tasks or engaging in certain behaviors is a child’s version of this framework.

Rewarding kids for appropriate behaviors can also be a great opportunity to teach them to be prepared to work for want they want and can help develop their sense of delayed gratification. These are extremely valuable life lessons to learn.

All of us parents are guilty of bribing our children from time to time – let’s not beat ourselves up about it. But by keeping the distinction in mind between bribery and reward, we are more likely to check ourselves when those moments arrive. The choice between short term compliance or long term lesson.

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