Have you ever told your child that if they behave, they get an ice cream? Or if they are nice to grandma, they’ll get a new toy? Or have you restrained yourself as a parent and set up a positive behavior chart listing chores and acts of kindness that your child can earn points that are redeemed for a prize?
It’s natural for parents to try to figure out the magic of motivating our kids to “do the right thing”, isn’t it? Many of us use a combination of rewards and bribes to move our kids in the directions we think we’d like to see them move. While many of today’s parenting experts push rewards for positive behaviors, I want to spend some time looking at both the ups and downs of bribes as well as rewards.
What do they have in common?
They are both used to motivate children to do something. Adults need motivation and rewards, too. As humans, we respond to incentives. We're much more inclined to do certain tasks, or partake in certain behaviors, if we know there's a something good on the other side. Working overtime at your job is a great example. Many of us wouldn't do that without being compensated.
Rewarding your child follows the same concept, and their positive response to rewards is developmentally normal. The trick is to make sure you find the right reward for your child.
What’s the difference?
A reward is something that is given to a child after they have completed a task or exhibited positive behavior. Rewards are discussed and determined ahead of time between you and your child. For example, you may promise to let your child have some screentime or a special dessert after they finish their homework or do a chore at home. If they don’t manage to do the task, no reward is given or expected.
On the other hand, a bribe is a persuasion offered typically during a child's negative behavior. Giving a child a treat who is having a tantrum when leaving a park playdate is one example. Or giving them an extra 15 minutes doing something when you said it was time to stop. Or when you hand them your cell phone when they are interrupting a conversation that you want to finish. All these train our kids that when they act poorly, they can “earn” something they want. It puts them in the driver’s seat. Not what any parent wants, for sure!
There are bribes that are set up in advance so we can persuade our child to do what they don't want to do. For example, you bribe your child to clean their room, paying them some money to do it or granting them screen time. Yes, the child may be successfully persuaded by you to clean their room. But they are also inclined to leave their room messy all over again, so they can be repeatedly bribed into cleaning it. Any natural motivation goes out the window when kids are bribed by parents. You are unwittingly training them to manipulate you into bribing them again.
This is the conundrum of rewards and bribes. Bribes reward negative behavior while rewards instill in children that if they perform then they’ll be rewarded. That works well until your child decides they don’t like that reward and so they won’t do the work that you’re asking them to do. Do you pay them more for their chores to get them to clean their room then? Or is there a limit to your budget for “rewarding” your kids for chores.
Not All Bribes Are Bad
When are bribes good? When a skill hasn’t been learned is when bribes are appropriate. Bribes should not be used for things that your child knows how to do already. A classic example that lots of parents use bribes for is when you are trying to potty train your child. If they go #1 on the potty they get 1 jellybean and if they go #2 they get M&Ms. Classic, right? It’s a behavior they need to be motivated toward and we’re motivated to get this to happen as well! After it is mastered and your child knows “how” to do whatever it is, the ”bribe” goes away. If they are learning to tie their shoes, maybe the bribe is a trip to a special park. But after they can tie those shoes the bribe is over, it’s just verbal praise and recognition when tying shoes after that.
Not All Rewards are Good
There’s quite a bit of emphasis on setting up rewards for good behavior in today’s parenting circles.
While we do want to promote good behavior, if we give too many rewards, we wind up undermining our own efforts to get to where we want to be and can develop kids who are entitled and spoiled. Grades are a classic. It’s super common for me to find families who reward for grades.
“I get x amount if I get a B but if I get an A I get more!” When I was a kid, I sure was jealous of my best friend who got paid for her grades. But interestingly, I still worked as hard as she did. I still wanted to get good grades even though I wasn’t getting paid in dollars. Why is that? My parents, unbeknownst to me, set me up to have intrinsic motivation to get good grades.
Yes, that’s what we want. Extrinsic motivation is where an outside influence causes a behavior change, paying for grades in this example muddies the waters and confuses our kids. Some kids aren’t good at every subject and I think that should be ok. I know parents get worried but us worrying about our kids grades FOR them means that they don’t have to worry. Grades should be a reflection of their efforts, not of yours to pay them a certain amount of money. If you set up from an early age that you will always be their cheerleader and assist when they need help, you’ll set your child up for success. Their work is their work. If they want to do well, you’ll be there to cheer them on. If they decide something isn’t worth the effort, you’ll be there to discuss that with them and allow for empathy if that decision works out or not. No rewards needed, just love and encouragement.
Another example, we want to train our kids treat others with kindness because it’s how we want to be treated. We don’t need an external reward for that. Doing kind things should fill our intrinsic motivation bucket. Talking about it in family meetings, about how it warms our hearts, having examples that we each share and modeling kindness in our family and with our friends is how they will learn. Not putting marbles in a jar. Those things do work for about a week or two but every family I know who have tried things like that, myself included, just sort of run out of steam after the initial burst of energy is spent. It’s totally weird how that happens but, it does.
Here's another example, chores. My full advice is offered in Podcast #14 so please go listen to that if you need more help but here’s a brief comment:
I encourage parents to not pay for chores but to teach children from a young age that you’re a family and every family member has responsibilities to help make the family function. We decide as a family who does what and how much. It can be complicated sometimes but it really works especially when family meetings to review family issues like chores and screentime and money and kindness or anything else is discussed. They learn that being part of a family team is intrinsically good. We need to allow for our kids to have input into our family unit so that they have buy-in to make each day as a family fun, loving and amazing.
Don't Underestimate Your Praise as a Reward
Rewards for kids of any age don’t always have to be, nor should they always be the material kind. The most powerful kind of reward a parent has to offer is simple, doesn’t cost anything, and is always at hand: your verbal praise. I also want to say that unexpected rewards are awesome. When you see your child has been striving over a long period of time to accomplish something maybe you take them out to Starbucks or for some Boba Tea. It’s spur of the moment, recognizing and celebrating their hard work, not some planned reward.
Bottomline, bribes are reserved for learning new skills, rewards for positive behaviors and are temporary or spur of the moment. Reward too frequently and you move into the realm of entitlement which tends to breed resentment over time.
I do have to say that its communicating expectations with kids in a positive, respectful manner that will get you further than all the bribes and rewards in the world. Taking the time to listen and discuss issues, to problem solve and lovingly allow our kids to make mistakes is the real key to getting our kids to move in positive directions.