Bribes vs. Rewards

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 motivational strategy helpful?

Sometimes there just isn’t an easy answer, but understanding how children respond to bribes and rewards can help you know if, when, and how to use each of them.

Bribes

Both bribes and rewards offer something in exchange for a desired behavior, but the way they are offered is 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’re in the grocery store checkout line when your child decides to have a complete meltdown. To advert disaster, you offer to buy her a sucker if she’ll stop the tantrum and 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

Rewards are determined ahead of time so that your child knows what to expect. It puts the parent, in the driver’s seat and stops any desperate negotiating in the heat of the moment.

Much like your job’s paycheck, rewards provide a concrete and positive incentive for doing a good job. In homes where expectations are low or permissive, children may miss out on learning a sense of accomplishment and initiative. 

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.

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 the activity.

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.

Timely

Time moves a lot slower for kids. The rewards need to be immediate enough to be enticing and reachable. A study by Freakonomics author and 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 an individual’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. The same study by Levitt found that children are more likely to work harder to protect money they already have than they are to work 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. Also, be sure that your expectations for your child are realistic.

Find Their Sweet Spot

Different things motivate different people. Some children might be motivated by time with parents or 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 they take the initiative and the reward will no longer be needed. You can do this by helping your child identify what lessons they have learned from the experience or showing your genuine appreciation for their help. The goal is not to create a long-term dependence on rewards, but to produce positive habits that will become self-rewarding.

Coaching & Support

Encourage your children as you guide and teach them. You’ll need to spend plenty of time helping your children acquire the skills they need to accomplish their goal. For example, offering a reward for your child for getting better 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 kids learn new skills.

Love and Affection

Children should always receive love and attention regardless of their performance. Tying affection and acceptance to performance can injure your relationship with your child.

Reviewed on March 14, 2019 by: Kevin Nelson, M.D., Ph.D.
Kevin Nelson, M.D., Ph.D.
Board-certified Pediatrician

Dr. Nelson's practice interests include asthma, behavioral health, nutrition, and special healthcare needs.

Payson Office
Full Bio



Share this article:




Recommended Reading


Stay connected to your children’s health:

Want pediatric news, kid-friendly recipes and parenting tips?
Sign up for our patient parent newsletter:

Other great ways to connect: