My friend, Julie, mom to 3, whose baby just went off to Kindergarten asked, “What’s the difference between a bribe and a reward?” She asked this question somewhat as a joke because her new little Kindergartner, T2, no longer wanted to go to school, after just 3 days of Kindergarten.
But nonetheless, a great question.
What Is the Difference Between a Reward and a Bribe?
Before we think about it in parenting terms, let’s think about it in grown-up world terms. In grown-up world, you get a reward when you do something great, say like find a sack of money and return it to it’s rightful owner. But a bribe is something you get paid for doing something wrong. So right off the bat, it should be easy to see what the difference is (in grown-up world).
You see where I’m going with this, right?
BRIBE OR REWARD, YOU DECIDE
We’ve all seen the harried mom in the Walmart checkout aisle, kids screaming, begging for stuff, touching everything in the point of sale display (oh wait, that’s me! HA!) Anyway.
We’ve all seen this mom, (or been this mom) and heard her say, “If you’ll stop acting like that, I’ll take you to McDonalds.” Or, “Please just be good and I’ll get you a toy.”
So I ask you, bribe or reward?
Go ahead and answer. I’m waiting . . .
If you said, “Bribe” then you are right.
The mom in this case has one plan, to get her kids to behave, no matter the cost to her personally. So these kids, who have been holy terrors throughout the store, get a trip to McDonalds. They just got rewarded for bad behavior.
It might feel like they are getting rewarded for changing to good behavior, but not so. The behavior you are reinforcing in this case is the bad one. (“If we behave bad enough, long enough, she’ll eventually give us something/buy us something to stop.”) Make sense?
TEENY WEENY SIDEBAR
Let me change gears here for a second and describe the two types of rewards, extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic rewards are something tangible we get for completing a certain task a certain way. They can include:
- A hug
- Encouraging words
- A desired activity (going somewhere, playing a certain game, baking something, etc.)
Extrinsic rewards require goal setting, and goal achieving to work, eventually moving the child completely away from needing a reward to accomplish the goal at all.
An intrinsic reward is a positive, internal feeling we get when we know we have done something well.
Ideally, we want to train our children to thrive on intrinsic rewards instead of always needing extrinsic ones. But if you think you will replace the need for extrinsic rewards altogether, you are wrong. Even as adults we still need and receive extrinsic rewards. (Think hugs, words of affirmation, paychecks, etc.)
REWARDS REQUIRE GOALS
Extrinsic Rewards should be used as positive reinforcers to encourage desired behaviors.
Let’s say in the case of T2 he suddenly develops a severe case of “I don’t want to go to schoolitis.” One way to help him reach the goal of going to school each day with a good attitude is to set up a reward system.
Remember I said extrinsic rewards require goal setting and goal achieving? THIS IS SO IMPORTANT!!!! Reward bad behavior one time with a bribe and you are going to be hard-pressed to stop that behavior from happening again. Think about what you are reinforcing and reinforce the right thing!
(If Julie offered T2 $5 to stop crying and go to school happily, you think he might want to get that $5 again? You can bet he will want it!)
1. Validate Their Problem – Julie should tell T2, “I know you’re having a hard time going to school. Tell you what, today, when you get home from school, let’s talk about some ways we can help you feel better about going to school in the morning.”
I know I talk about validation a lot. I think it is so important in every area of life!
2. Discuss Desired Behaviors - At the end of the day, after school, Julie and T2 can discuss what his desired morning behavior should be. “T2, you know what I’d like to see? I’d like you to leave for school each morning excited about school and all the fun things you get to do there! In fact, I want to help you, so I made you this fun, “I Love School Sticker Chart.” Let him choose his own reward. Every child is different, so let his love language tell you what he wants for a reward.
(quick aside: If this were for the mom at Walmart whose kids always misbehave, she might do the same thing for them BEFORE they go to the store the next time!
Or, if it was for a teenager who hates to do their homework, you could set up some type of extrinisic system for them . . . likely though, stickers wouldn’t cut it! Speak their love language!)
3. Role Play the Desired Behaviors – Once you have established what the desired behavior is, practice it, multiple times, including ACTUALLY putting stickers on the chart. (Kind of a free reward at this point that gets him really close to his goal!) This is very important to help him remember how he is supposed to act. You might have to refer back to the practice. For example, Julie might say to T2, “I know you want to stay home but remember how we practiced going to school in the mornings? Let’s try that.”
4. Over-Reward in the Beginning – Remember the point is to get to the goal to reinforce the desired behavior. So the faster you get to the goal the first time, the quicker the desired behavior is reinforced and the quicker the desired behavior becomes the more common behavior. (This is why you gave out rewards in the role-playing phase!) You can even say things like, “Man, that was the best I have ever seen you _____. I’m giving you three stickers today” to get to the goal more quickly.
5. Replacing the Extrinsic with Intrinsic – Once you’ve reached the goal, over time you’ll want to help move your child from needing the extrinsic reward and replacing it with an intrinsic reward (see above). Do this gradually. Let your child experience some rewards, and after awhile, you’ll notice they stop asking for the reward. This is how you’ll know they are ready to lose the chart!
For the Love, Stop Bribing Your Kids!
So that’s it. Don’t bribe your children, but absolutely help them understand (and repeat) the behaviors you value by using a reward system.
What do you think? Did I nail it, or did I leave something out? Did I leave you with more questions than answers, or are you armed and ready to train your kiddos to reach their goals? Leave your comments below. I'd love to hear from you! (And if you have your own parenting question, don't forget to leave it in the comments too!)