The problems with bribes & rewards

Are you guilty of bribing your kids or over-rewarding them? We take a look at the difference between bribes and rewards, the long term effects of both and instilling positive values.
Are you guilty of bribing your kids or over-rewarding them?

We take a look at the difference between bribes and rewards, the long term effects of both and instilling positive values.

The problems with bribes & rewards


1. The difference between bribes & rewards

It’s good to reward kids for doing things well, but when life gets hectic, bribing them to do things is often a quick and easy fix.

So what’s the difference between a bribe and a reward?

In both cases your child is receiving something for what you want them to do.
  • When is it a bribe?

A bribe is something offered before the task is done in order to get your child to do what you want them to do.

For instance, ‘If you sit on the potty, you can have some lollies.’ Or ‘I will give you a new toy now if you promise to be good at the shopping mall this afternoon.’

Bribery generally occurs under duress.

It happens quickly, when all you want is to change or manage your child’s behaviour on the spot, so you offer them something that you had no previous intention of giving them.

It’s a form of negotiating.
  • When is it a reward?

A reward is something that happens after the event.

It’s a way of compensating your child for their good behaviour, rather than being manipulated and extorted.

For example, ‘Thank you for helping pack up your toys. Now we can go to the park.’


2. Instilling positive values

Does it really matter if it’s a bribe or reward, as long as it makes your child co-operate and carry out the task in hand?

Well, that depends on what you are trying to teach them in the long term.
  • The effects of bribes

Do you want a child who will only do things if there is something in it for them?

Do you want to encourage your little one to have an unreasonable sense of entitlement, to ask themselves, ‘What’s in it for me?’ each time there is a job to be done?
  • The effects of rewards

Or would you like to teach your child that when they co-operate they can feel that they have helped you, you feel pleased with them and perhaps now have more time to spend with them?


3. Evaluating your motivation & methods

It pays to be cautious about your own motivation and methods when it comes to bribery and rewards.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers live in the present. They don’t have the cognitive skills or impulse control required to think ahead, so they can’t realistically be held to a promise, whatever the incentive.
  • Resorting to bribery

If you’re in a hurry or desperate to motivate your child, it can resort to bribery.

Attempting to curtail your child’s unruly actions by offering a bribe might actually seem like it’s working in the moment, but bribery is usually not the best solution in the long term.

Offering bribes, especially material goods, every time you want to enlist their cooperation is likely to backfire.

For example, offering lollies every time they sit on the toilet could cause your child to race to the potty every few minutes in order to get a treat, rather than learning to actually use the potty.

Also the promise of a new toy now for being good at the shopping mall later won’t motivate any child to live up to their promise of cooperation. They have the prize, so what does it matter?
  • Determining rewards

Whenever possible, determine most rewards ahead of time, be clear with behavioural expectations.

For instance, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, ‘When you are in your pyjamas we will have a story,’ or ‘When your toys are packed away, we can go to the park.’ 


4. The long term effect of bribes & rewards

Children become wiser as they grow older.

If they’re use to bribes and receiving rewards when they’re young, they’re likely to raise the stakes when they’re older and eventually refuse to do a single thing unless there is something in it for them.
  • Using bribery

Using bribery can become an ongoing pattern that ultimately teaches your child to act out to get what they want.
  • Over-rewarding

Also, if you constantly give rewards for good behaviour or achievements, then one day when you don’t give a reward, your child may give up and stop trying.

If a reward is attached to every achievement, you start to devalue your child’s efforts because you are subtly telling them you didn’t think they were up to the task, and this in turn affects their self-esteem.


5. Intermittent reinforcement

In the most part, it’s good to allow your child to have the satisfaction of achieving a goal by simply acknowledging their efforts.

Occasionally, you could offer a small reward that is a natural consequence of their cooperation.

The principle behind intermittent reinforcement means that giving occasional rewards as a surprise works better from a behavioural perspective in the long term than having your child expect a reward each time they do something wonderful.
Being mindful of the effects of offering rewards and bribes means that your child will be more likely to be intrinsically motivated.

6. Long term solution

Remember that when you resort to bribery to control your child’s behaviour, the price that you end up paying is actually a lot higher than it may seem in the moment.

Instead, encourage your child to earn reasonable rewards by being responsible and making an effort to improve their behaviour.

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Image source: dailymail

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