Do Bribes and Rewards For Children Work?
Julie’s son is always throwing tantrums or running off when she grocery shops. She wants him to behave and stay with her.
To entice him to do this, she tells him, “If you stay with me and we can get through the store without you throwing a fit, you can pick out a candy bar at the checkout.”
All through the store, Julie reminds him, “Remember, if you are a good boy you’ll get to pick out a candy bar.”
Why Do Parents Use Bribes and Rewards For Children?
You’ve probably been tempted, like most parents, to reward your children’s good behavior or use bribes to entice your children to cooperate. Bribes are offers of gifts or payments which are presented up-front, to manipulate or influence someone to take a particular action. Rewards pay children after-the-fact for behaving in a desirable way.
Do bribes and rewards work? The short and simple answer is YES…but only in the short-term. In fact, that’s actually the problem, that they do appear to work. Just because it “works” (now), doesn’t mean you should do it!
You may be tempted to use bribes and rewards for children because you want to distract your children from what they want and get them to buy into what you want. It’s a classic form of manipulation that you’ve told your children to resist, such as strangers offering them candy. So if you then try to manipulate them with bribes it can be confusing and inadvertently send the message it’s okay to use or take bribes to get what you want.
To add to the confusion, there are decades of research and psychological theories promoting “operant conditioning,” “behavior modification” techniques or “rewards and punishment.” Unfortunately, that research usually focuses only on the short-term benefits and not the negative consequences long-term research has consistently found when these techniques are used to motivate children. (See www.AlfieKohn.org.)
You may find bribes and rewards are simply convenient and because they usually work — in the short run – they provide a quick fix. But bribes and rewards for children quickly become addictive for both you and your children. You need to look at the long-term messages you are sending and decide whether these are the lessons you intend to teach.
What Messages Do Bribes and Rewards for Children Send?
Like many parents, you may be tempted to give psychological and material rewards to reinforce wanted behavior. Praise sends the message that in order to get approval, love, acceptance, or to be considered “good” your child must do what you tell them. Such external, superficial, and conditional love can result in your children becoming dependent on others’ opinions for their self-worth or more susceptible to being manipulated through flattery.
A more effective approach is to teach your children acceptable behavior like any other skill – encouraging them to do it because it’s the “right” thing to do — and viewing mistakes as part of their learning process.
Sincere descriptions of a child’s acceptable behavior and the value of their contributions will lead your children to conclude for themselves that they feel good inside when they are helpful. Such internal satisfaction is a greater reward than any external compliment or payoff, which can be canceled out with criticisms or punishments.
Food rewards teach children to use food for purposes other than nourishment of the body, which can start a lifetime of unhealthy emotional eating habits.
Material rewards such as toys and money teach children that they should behave to get a payoff. The argument is that in real life you get paid for doing a job, but there are many things people have to do in life that are not “jobs” and you don’t get paid. Do you get paid for doing the dishes, your family’s laundry or fixing a meal for your family?
Lastly, rewards can become a weapon, for both you and your children. You probably would agree that you want your children to cooperate because something needs doing, because they are part of the family, or because it’s the responsible thing to do. Unfortunately, by using bribes, children do what’s needed for the payoff, not because they understand the value of doing it.
Truly, your children want to cooperate and feel helpful, but they don’t like to be tricked. Children catch on quickly if someone is manipulating them. They may resist cooperating if they think that doing what you ask is a sign of giving in. They might also use your tendency to bribe to their advantage by refusing to cooperate unless they get a payoff.
How Do You Motivate Children Without Bribing or Giving Rewards?
To tell if you’re bribing or motivating a child, look at two things:
- What is your motive? If you are trying to manipulate, you are probably bribing.
- Who is suggesting the tradeoff? Generally, “If ___, then ___.” statements tend to come off more like bribes. For example, “If you eat your peas I’ll give you some delicious dessert.” “If you finish cleaning your room, you can play with John.“
If children ask if they can have something and your respond with the condition under which they can have it, it teaches values, such as “work before play” or “healthy food before sweets.” For example, if you say, “When (or “As soon as . . .”)___ then ___,” children are less likely to misconstrue the statement as a bribe. For example, “When you have eaten your healthy food, you can have some dessert if you like.” “As soon as your room is clean, you can play with John.” Notice the value of healthy foods is the message here and the reason for eating the peas?
You want to teach your children that their behavior is a choice. Each choice has an outcome and most privileges have responsibility attached. Even a small change in your wording can dramatically change the long-term lesson your children learn.
To learn more about fostering responsibility and self-motivation in children without bribes and rewards, take the complimentary “30-Days To Parenting Success” on-line course. Many times there is not much difference between using rewards for children’s good behavior, behavior charts, and bribery. The 30-Day course will explore the differences and some guidelines to follow should you choose to use behavior charts.
Sign up for the “30-Days To Parenting Success” on-line course now!
Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network, and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop. For 30+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series. Jody currently serves as the online parenting expert for Chic Mom Magazine and dozens of other parenting sites.AC
Reprint Guidelines: You may publish/reprint any article from our site for non-commercial purposes in your ezine, website, blog, forum, RSS feed or print publication, as long as it is the entire un-edited article and title and includes the article’s source credit, including the author’s bio and active links as they appear with the article. We also appreciate a quick note/e-mail telling us where you are reprinting the article. To request permission from the author to publish this article in print or for commercial purposes, please complete and send us a Permission to Reprint Form.
Original source of material: The Parents Toolshop® book.