Do Bribes and Rewards For Children Work?
Julie’s son usually throws tantrums or runs 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.
If you want more insights, information and practical tools and tips about [not] using behavior charts and other forms of “behavior modification”:
- Read our article on why you want to avoid using behavior charts and other forms of “behavior modification.”
- Opt-in for our free bonus resource. It’s a 5-page excerpt from Chapter 5 of The Parent’s Toolshop® book.
- Listen to a one-hour recording of a live workshop called, “Get Cooperation — Without Squeezing the Juice out of Kids!” Click the link for a description or to order.
- Get personalized support and learn tools and techniques you can apply to the challenges you face right away, attend one of our monthly webinars
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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