Discipline: Don’t confuse bribes with rewards

Bribes vs rewards - how to discipline

I recently read a book on disciplining children of all ages (disciplining is quite a challenge for parents of young children as I can tell from my own experience!). I didn’t find the book too enlightening so I won’t share too many details here, but one specific paragraph gave me some food for thought. The author was discussing incentives and rewards you could offer your child for good behavior. He then issued a strong warning: never, ever confuse a bribe with a reward. OK, so what’s the difference between the two anyway?

  • A reward can be a surprise for GOOD behavior. You notice your child behaving well, and you reward him as a result. E.g. I saw you playing so well with your brother that I’m going to let you stay up 15 minutes later to read an extra story tonight. Kids love this type of surprise! Also, try to focus the reward on the effort, rather than the achievement, so that your child is motivated to work hard at something every time.
  • A reward can also be a goal for a planned activity, when you provide an incentive for your child to achieve the goal. In the workplace, that’s called… a paycheck! Back to your kids at home… You can say, IF you put all of your toys away in less than 3 minutes, THEN I’ll take you to the playground for 30 minutes. The “IF, THEN” statement helps your child understand that good behavior can lead to positive consequences.
  • Be careful not to overdo rewards. If a child knows you’ll offer a reward for every occurrence of good behavior, the reward will quickly lose its impact. Your child will soon refuse to do anything you ask unless there’s a reward associated with it. A good example of reward overuse is when parents give candy to their kids to potty train them. Unless you have a bottomless supply of M&Ms and are ready to induce diabetes in your child, don’t even think about it! Never abuse the rewarding system and help your child understand that good behavior is expected at all times, reward or not.
  • A bribe is a reward for BAD or negative behavior. E.g. If you child throws a temper tantrum in the middle of the store and you promise her some ice cream if she stops, that’s a bribe. It’s very tempting to use bribes to stop the bad behavior, but it will only condition your child to request more bribing in the future, because it works! Bad behavior should always be assigned negative consequences (e.g. removal from the situation, time-out, reduction of privileges, etc).
  • Do your best to often notice the good behavior so that your child is motivated to repeat it. The use of praise is appropriate, but it has to be done right too! Look out for an upcoming post on how to praise effectively.

I hope this helps and gives you a chance to observe what you use at home and how well it works. I’d love to hear your success stories (and even your not-so-successful stories, so we can all learn!).

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4 responses to “Discipline: Don’t confuse bribes with rewards

  1. I agree! I think there is a fine line between bribes and rewarding good behaviour.

  2. Hey, nice to “meet” you in the blogging world! I hadn’t thought about that difference between a reward and a bribe before – e.g. for negative vs. positive behaviour. Interesting point.

  3. I’ve never used a bribe as you define it here, but I think of bribes as the if/then statements. I feel like I’m buying my child’s cooperation, and it feels like a bribe. I’ve noticed with my son that none of this is effective at all. Just like negative consequences aren’t all that effective with him. He enjoys the reward while it’s happening, dislikes a negative consequence as it’s happening, but neither is strong enough to really affect future behavior.

    Especially with negative consequences, he is smart enough to know that no matter how bad the consequence, in the end I’m still going to love him, feed him, let him sleep in my house, so he knows that there is nothing to really be afraid of. So, no consequence is bad enough to dissuade him from the original bad behavior. This is mind-blowingly frustrating.

    I think some kids respond to positive/negative consequences and some just don’t.

    • Hmm, I have to say I’m at a loss for words. I thought my kids were pretty spirited but you definitely get the award for most spirited child! All I can suggest is to keep at it with addressing the negative behavior and reinforcing the positive behavior, read some good books, and maybe get professional advice down the road if needed. An outside perspective can be quite helpful.

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