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Rewards vs. Bribes

Dr Lawrence Kutner, PhD

All parents resort to bribing their children at some point. It's usually a last-ditch effort aimed at quieting a five-year-old who's whining loudly in the supermarket checkout line or at controlling a ten-year-old on the brink of a social disaster. The promise of a pizza, a toy, or a few extra dollars can have dramatic, if temporary effects on a child's behaviour.

But what happens if bribery becomes the main technique parents use? Is a little bribery such a bad thing? While bribes often do produce a high degree of effort from children, they can have negative long-term effects. Those problems are most likely to occur when a child is repeatedly bribed and comes to depend on bribes, even for ordinary tasks.

Small external rewards, like a shiny sticker, a piece of candy, or a few complimentary words, are powerful incentives for young children. The reward helps them focus their efforts on a task until they can see and feel for themselves the benefits of what they have done. A five-year-old, for example, may not understand the value of cleaning her room or of washing her hands before dinner. A new dinosaur sticker for her collection or some extra attention provides enough of a reward until she grows older and has stronger internal motivations.

One problem with bribery is that instead of acting as a transition to these internal motivations, it can become the primary focus of the child's efforts. The natural rewards that come with doing a job well or being part of a group are overshadowed and go unnoticed, making it less likely that the child will do the job again without another bribe.

In addition, any behaviour associated with a bribe can immediately become suspect in children's eyes. They reason, sometimes with great accuracy, that if their parents offer them something expensive or unusual for trying a new food, for example, it must really taste bad. While routine chores, such as clearing the table or washing the dishes may not be very interesting activities, children can enjoy the feeling they get that they are helping to make their family work. If parents offer a bribe for performing basic tasks, that makes those chores appear much less attractive.

So telling a child who dislikes arithmetic that you will give him $20 for finishing his math homework—which is clearly a bribe since he should be doing it anyway—is likely to backfire by making the arithmetic even less attractive than it already is. At the same time, offering a bribe can make your child see the bribe itself as less valuable or enticing than it otherwise would be. In other words, the child figures that if you're offering her a pizza if she cleans up her room, that pizza can't be very good.

An occasional bribe, whether in response to a crisis or simply at a time when you want a little peace and quite, probably won't lead to large problems later on. Keep in mind, however, that you want your child eventually to be motivated and rewarded by the tasks themselves. You should offer the smallest reward necessary to get the job done.

So how do you break the bribery habit? A child who has been repeatedly bribed will tend to up the ante for every request a parent makes. Here are some things you can do to avoid that problem, or to break the cycle if you feel you've been bribing your children too much:

  • Let your child know that you are aware of and respect her opinions. After all, no one really enjoys taking out the garbage. By stating that your realise it is sometimes a smelly and messy job, you are letting her know that her feelings are valid, but that she must still do her part. If you try to convince your child that something is interesting or fun when it isn't you're telling her that her feelings don't count. You're also lying—and she knows it.The same holds true for doing homework. Acknowledge that sometimes it isn't fun and that it might be more pleasant to talk on the telephone or watch television; but make it clear that this doesn't mean she can avoid her school assignments. Taking this approach avoids your being sidetracked into name-calling and battles over whether your child is lazy.
  • Focus your attention on your child's behaviour instead of the results or the reward. That helps with the transition to the child's own internal motivation and sense of accomplishment. If you're concerned about your child's grades, for example, praise her or offer other small rewards for daily studying—the behaviour you really want and that your child can control—instead of waiting for report cards. If you put more emphasis on conveying a sense of appreciation for your child's behaviour than on the reward, your child is less likely to become dependent on the reward.Also, involve your child in figuring out a study schedule. That makes her more likely to follow through than if you simply imposed some new rules.
  • Remember how tremendously reinforcing some extra attention from you is for your children. Parents sometimes feel they have to use more and more expensive rewards, when what their children really want them to do is spend more time with them.
  • If you want to break the cycle of bribery, do it dramatically. Hold a family meeting and announce that there are going to be some significant changes.

Be very clear and explicit about the new rules. Explain what behaviours are expected of your children simply because they're members of the family. These might include such things as doing their school work, helping set the dinner table, and putting their dirty laundry in the hamper. Explain—firmly—that there will be no more bribes. Also, go over the consequences of not doing what's expected of them. ("If you don't do your homework, you won't be allowed to watch television or play video games. If you don't put your dirty clothes in the hamper, they won't be washed.") Remember that most children will, within a day or two, challenge those new rules to see if you were serious about change. Be prepared.

Apologise to your children for having bribed them. Don't get hung up on your own guilt. Instead, be glad you realised what was happening and move on.

Dr. Lawrence Kutner is one of America's best-known speakers, writers, broadcasters and psychologists specialising in families and children. Dr Kutner is a child behaviour columnist and contributing editor of Parenting, BabyTalk and Family Life magazines, ParentTime.com and Pampers.com, and the former child behaviour columnist for the New York Times and Parents magazine. Dr Kutner is also a member of the psychiatry faculty of Harvard Medical School, an international consultant, and the author of five books on making sense of children's behaviours. You can read more insightful articles written by Dr Kutner by visiting his website.