Parents often worry about offering children too many incentives. Will it turn my child into a reward-junkie? Will my children always need rewarding to do anything? Will I raise a child who only co-operates if there is something in it for them? The answer comes down to the difference between rewards and bribes.
In positive parenting terms, rewards can be good but bribes are almost always bad. Used well, a reward is a motivator that encourages desirable behaviour. It is a short term strategy that helps to set up a new habit or behaviour. Rewards are quickly phased out and replaced by verbal recognition that makes a child feel good about themselves and intrinsically motivated to keep repeating that desirable behaviour (see Making reward charts work).
When it comes to rewards, parents are in control. They decide what behaviour will earn a reward and whether the reward has been earned. Rewards make children feel proud of themselves for getting it right.
Bribes, on the other hand, tend to be controlled by children. They are extracted under threat of doing the wrong behaviour or in order to make the wrong behaviour stop. A bribe has to be given every time and is hard to phase out.
If you give a child a donut because they are making a loud embarrassing fuss at the supermarket and you want them to stop, that’s a bribe. It accidentally rewards the behaviour you don’t like and, perversely, makes it much more likely that your child will make a loud embarrassing fuss the next time you go to the supermarket.
If, before you enter the store, you tell your child that they need to talk nicely in a quiet voice while you go round the supermarket and that if they do that, they can have a donut at the end, that’s a reward. The aim is to set up a positive pattern of behaviour.
Still not sure on the difference between rewards and bribes? Here’s a checklist!
- If your child demands something in order to co-operate, it’s a bribe.
- Rewards make children feel proud of themselves: bribes make children feel powerful.
- Rewards are earned for good behaviour: bribes are offered (or demanded) to stop bad behaviour.
- Rewards are planned and controlled by parents. They are non-negotiable.
- Bribes are used in desperation.
Want to know more? Check out these ideas for how to use incentives to encourage battle-free homework or a stress-free morning routine. You might also like this short video clip on setting ground rules.
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