Article at a Glance

  • Bribes teach children that they will be rewarded for acting out.
  • Rewards provide a well-thought through incentive for doing a good job.
  • Rewards should be used to develop positive habits instead of dependence on the reward.

Should you bribe your children? And what’s the difference between a bribe and a reward anyway? Is either one even helpful?

With parenting there is never an easy answer. But understanding how each works can help you know if, when, and how to use bribes and rewards.

Both bribes and rewards offer something in exchange for a desired behavior, but the way they are offered is very different. Unlike a reward, bribes aren’t planned ahead of time and generally happen when you are in the middle of a crisis. For example, you are in the grocery store checkout line buying the milk you desperately need for breakfast tomorrow and your child decides to have a complete meltdown. To advert disaster, you offer your child a sucker after she promises to be good.

Although bribes can be helpful with managing stressful situations, the long-term consequences outweigh any benefit. Bribes teach children that they can get something they want by acting out. Instead of teaching them how to comply, it is teaching them that they can get more by not complying.

Rewards are determined ahead of time, so that your child knows what to expect. It puts the parents in the driver’s seat because they aren’t desperately negotiating in the heat of the moment. Much like a job’s paycheck, rewards provide a concrete and positive incentive for doing a good job.

Pros and Cons

While bribes are almost always a bad idea, rewards can be very effective when done right. But they can also have their downsides.

If used too often, rewards can cause children to always wonder what’s in it for them instead of helping out of a sense of duty. It is important for children to know that they need to contribute to the family because they are a part of the family.

Rewards can also teach children to only do something when there is some kind of reward. Back in the early 1970’s a Stanford University study showed how using rewards can actually reduce motivation over the long term. Toddlers who were rewarded for drawing pictures ended up drawing less a week later. It appeared that rewarding them for drawing dampened their natural enjoyment of drawing.

Ideally, children should be motivated by love and respect for themselves and others. When children are eager to maintain their parent’s approval, they will behave well because they don’t want to let their parents down. They will also feel motivated by their own inner desire to succeed. Parents can nurture this kind of environment with consistent and positive parenting.

But despite the downsides, some studies have also shown that rewards can be helpful motivators. Many argue that rewards teach important lessons like the value of good work and how to work towards goals. In particular, many believe that offering rewards for good grades helps teach students how the workforce operates and that it provides a valuable motivator.

Tips on How to Use Rewards

Although rewards can be helpful in certain situations, you have to be careful how you use them. Here are some tips.

Time moves a lot slower for kids. The rewards need to be immediate enough to be enticing and reachable. A study by Freakonomics economist Steven D. Levitt found that students did better when promised immediately before a test that they would be rewarded for any improvements in performance right after the test. If there was too much of a delay, they didn’t see the same level of improvement.

Loss Aversion:
Studies have found that people’s aversion to losing something they already have is twice as powerful as the satisfaction they feel when acquiring something new. In economics this is called loss aversion. And it turns out that it works with kids too. Children are more likely to work harder to protect money they already have than they are about earning more money. The same study by Levitt found that the children worked harder to protect money they believed they already had than they did to earn more money.

Clear Expectations:
When using rewards, make sure that the rewards and behavioral expectations are clear. Then be sure to follow through. Vague plans and inconsistent payouts will teach children that they can’t trust the system and they won’t be invested in it.

Find Their Sweet Spot:
Different things motivate different people. Some children might be motivated by monetary rewards while others will work harder for time to play videos games. With younger children, they might be more interested in stickers or small toys.

Teaching a Lesson:
Any reward system should aim at teaching a positive behavior or breaking a bad habit. The goal should be to help your child to progress to a time when the reward will no longer be needed. You can do this by helping your child identify what lessons they have learned from the experience. The goal is not to create a long-term dependence on you, but to produce positive habits that will last a lifetime.

You will need to spend plenty of time helping your children acquire the skills they need to accomplish their goal. For example, rewarding your child for getting good grades won’t work if she hasn’t learned effective study skills. You will need lots of patience to help your child learn the needed skills. Things like coaching, role-playing, and problem-solving conversations can help with this.

Love and Affection:
Children should always receive love and attention regardless of what they do. Tying affection to performance can injure your relationship with your child.

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Bribes vs. Rewards

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