Is Bribing Effective?

Thinking about the difference between rewards and bribes

Keener, if you sit down and smile for this picture, you can have a lollipop. We’ve all done it. I did it as part of my approach to change Keener’s attitude towards swimming. If you are good, I will give you ____ (ice cream, extra screen time, candy, etc.). As parents, we find ourselves in those moments where we want a behavior change immediately — your child is melting down in the grocery store, they won’t comply with a given direction, or you are just so exhausted that it feels like the path of least resistance. My husband resorts to this often. If you go upstairs right now, you can have Teddy Grahams…

I went down this rabbit hole to get Keener into the pool without crying. We have been going to swimming for five months now and he still gets three jelly beans after swimming each week. Since we only go once a week, if we miss a week due to vacation or illness, he resists. And part of what helps him feel brave on the way there is knowing he will get those jelly beans after he is dressed and out of the pool.

Of course, I want to break him of this habit — as it is hard to find Starburst jelly beans out of Easter season and we are almost out. But most importantly, I don’t want him thinking this is how life works — resist, then reward. If he puts up a fight starting school in the fall, I am not going to give him jelly beans for every day that he doesn’t resist. If he doesn’t want to stay with a new babysitter, I don’t want to bribe him to convince him this new sitter will keep him safe just like mommy does. I want him to trust mommy that she always makes sure he is safe and that mommy always comes back.

While bribes may be effective in the moment, they also raise a few concerns:

  • Short term: We are rewarding our kids to misbehave (Hmmm, if I run around and scream, then I get an M&M when I stop . . . They are smart kids, they realize what just happened, and they will do it again.).
  • Long term: 
    • We are negotiating with our kids, which minimizes our role as their parent.
    • Behavior is only changing in that moment — no long term skills are acquired.
    • Kids are behaving for an object, not because they are expected to comply.

So what other options are there to encourage the right behavior? Childwise names different tools of positive reinforcement:

  1. Verbal affirmation/praise
  2. Goal incentives
  3. Rewards

While I plan to elaborate more on each of these later, I want to highlight the Rewards piece as these can often be confused with bribes. According to Childwise, “The purpose of a reward is to confirm and reinforce proper behavior.” The greatest difference between a reward and bribe is the order. Bribes are given up front and in exchange for good behavior later on. Rewards are given once the appropriate behavior has been demonstrated. Thus, you are recognizing and rewarding the desired behavior. For example, Keener, I noticed what a great listener you have been all afternoon, I’m going to let you choose a lollipop!

Childwise mentions an incredibly helpful way of thinking about it: “Children should be rewarded for their obedience, not obedient for a reward.”

In reflecting this past week on bribes, I have realized that the biggest problem with them for me is unintentionally reinforcing the disobedience. It takes Keener acting out, not listening, running away, or screaming and then told he will get something he wants. Moving forward, I am trying to be more aware of the times I am bribing him and reflecting on the following:

  • What skills is he lacking?
  • How can I teach him those skills?
  • Am I making my expectations clear?
  • Am I putting the supports in place to make him successful?

This past week, I have used rewards more and seen really positive changes. He is happier and I am happier. I “catch him being good” and reward him instead of having him obey for the reward. As school is around the corner, I want to set him up to be successful and compliant. And hopefully not asking his teacher if he can have a jelly bean if he is a good listener.

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