Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Forum: Rewards vs. Bribery

As a parent, I constantly ask this question: What is the difference between a reward and a bribe?

Our friend defines reward as 'something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, etc.' while defining bribe as 'anything given or serving to persuade or induce.' And obviously reward generally has a positive connotation, while bribe has a negative one. But it doesn't feel that simple and clear in the daily challenge of child-rearing. For example, if I promise my 3-year-old, Blaine, that he can have some gum if he is a good boy at the grocery store, is that a reward or a bribe? Is that good parenting or not? How do we give our children positive incentives without just "buying them off?" How do we give them goals and reasonable rewards without slipping into bribery, which, I tend to think, is lazy parenting (and I point my finger at myself as much as anyone else!)?

Your thoughts?



Anna said...

Note I haven't tried this yet, but I'm reading a book about rearing responsible children. Anyway, the author says to be strict and have consequences but the key to having responsible children vs. rebellious children is to help them understand why. Explain why in the short picture and the big picture. Don't hit your sister b/c I said so, b/c that's not kind, b/c she doesn't like it, b/c you could get thrown in jail one day if you keep that stuff up, b/c God doesn't want you to, etc. Not that you need to give them a 5 minute lecture all at once or anything, but helping them understand helps them make better decisions - so he says. It makes sense since I don't want to do anything unless I understand why.

For littler kids, I don't know how effective this would be.

Stefani M. said...

I'm okay with small bribes--I think gum is a cheap way to get good behavior in the store--it's out-of-the-ordinary. I bribe my 4 yo with being able to *sit* on the riding toys (not ride) or the red balls at Target, and I'm okay with that. But offering something larger, not okay with me. Large things should be a reward for something excellent over the long term--not the absence of age-inappropriate negative behavior. Small things, though, are great for bribes. Don't we all need a little motivation sometimes. (If I work out on the treadmill for 30 minutes, I can eat that blueberry muffin with no guilt.)
The Short Story: Small bribes=okay. Large bribes=bad. Rewards=rewarding above-the-bar behavior or accomplishments.

Emily Anne said...

I've been thinking about this question a lot, Anne. I think it's a really interesting point you raise. I like Anna's comment about helping our children understand WHY we ask them to do the things we do.

I think this is a tricky line to walk as a parent. I don't know the "right answer" and I'm really curious to hear what others say. Here are my feelings:

I think appropriate incentives are fine, and to some degree, necessary, especially for young children. I think they should be simple, not extravagant, and not always food-related. (that's a complexity in and of itself -- finding something your child likes/cares about enough to give you some leverage -- any good suggestions for 4 yr. old boys?? :)

I think our ultimate goal should be helping our children behave/love/ serve for the right reasons and with the right motives. If we have to offer a piece of gun at first to help them get in the habit of making good choices - fine. Hopefully as they get in the habit of good behavior they'll begin to realize, with our help, that there are intrinsic rewards that come with good choices that are even better than gum (or whatever) -- clear conscience, the satisfaction of kindness and making other people happy, confidence, etc. and we can gradually move away from tangible rewards. I think it's really important as parents that we praise our children and help them recognize those good feelings they have inside when they make a good choice, work hard, complete a task, etc. Hopefully that satisfaction will breed more desire to be well-behaved, lessening the need for external motivation. I think this is true because I'm starting to see it in Henry (we have a long way to go...but I can see the beginnings of it).

To put this in a gospel perspective, we all have to grow into pure motives. I think we all obey out of fear at some point, then maybe out of duty or to be seen/praised by others...but hopefully we eventually evolve to the point where we serve and obey out of love.
I think our children are capable of the same kind of progression and growth.

LJ said...

Really interesting question and responses. I've got a 4 year old boy so this is a dilemma I've struggled with for a couple of years now! I once bought mentos at the check out stand for my son and after that he threw a fit every time we went past those darn things. So, I now try to use food/treat rewards/bribes very, very sparingly, if at all. Sometimes I think there should just be certain expectations for behavior. I expect him to behave at the grocery store. I expect him to not hit his brother. When he doesn't meet those expectations, there is a consequence--time out--in our case. I know that doesn't work for everyone but it really works for us!

danielle said...

Can I just ditto Emily's comment?;) She said it much better than I would have anyway.

Also,I guess I would add that in terms of eliciting good behavior from children its important to put them in situations where they can succeed. I honestly think that 9 times out of 10, kids act up because their needs aren't being met. They are tired, or bored, or hungry, or just need more of our attention. Its easy to cart them around all day moving them from high chair to carseat to grocery cart. Then we expect them to behave while we get done what we need to do, when what they need is to run around, be stimulated, play, and have us engage with them. Now that Avery can walk, she doesn't want to be put in the cart at the store. So what do I do to get her to happily behave in she grocery store? I let her out. It works like a charm. She walks with me, and "pushes" the cart, or I just let her walk down the aisles and explore (and I follow her). She feels the food, asks me what things are, we smell fruit, look at the flowers...and its fun. Yes, it takes longer to get shopping done....but who cares. I realize that this wouldn't maybe be possible with more than one child, and that behavior issues with 17 month old children are much different than with older children, but I really think the principle still applies. If we pay more attention to our children's needs, we make it easier for them to behave when we ask them to. Because I think that constantly putting our own needs (or to do list) above our children's, is lazy parenting (and I also point the finger at myself as much as anyone else on this ;)). Now excuse me while I go let my child out of the high chair I have her strapped in while I am blogging...

danielle said...

Oh one more thing...I think in terms of rewards (although in this case I wouldn't really consider it a reward) they should be relevant to the issue at hand. For example, if you tell your child, "I know its hard to sit still and behave at the store (or whatever), when we're finished we can play at the park an extra long time," you are addressing the actual issue...which is that kids need to play and move. You are letting them know that if they can temporarily put that need on hold so that you can do something you need to do, ultimately they will get what they need too (and the shopping monotony will end at some point). So instead of bribing or rewarding with a treat that has nothing to do with the actual reason for their bad behavior, you just meet that need. That being said, I think its absolutely fine to give kids treats. Who doesn't need a treat sometimes? Just don't do it in place of giving them what they really need.

danielle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bloom said...

Oooh I just love all these wise women. Danielle, I think you make some great points. I'm constantly having to remind myself that I can't expect perfect behavior out of my children if I haven't met their needs (sleep, food, movement, etc.) I also like the idea of having rewards (and also punishments) relating to the actual issue. Obviously this isn't always possible, but I think it helps kids make more sense out of the consequences imposed on them.

I agree with LJ that we should have certain expectations of our children. They shouldn't need an external incentive for every good behavior. I also agree with Emily, that sometimes we may use some time of reward at first, which later isn't needed. For example, when potty-training Blaine I would give him a little treat every time he went, and eventually that just disappeared. He stopped thinking about it, because instead of using the toilet being a huge accomplishment, it was just a routine. This is how Taylor has decided he differentiates between bribe and reward. If you're asking something of your child that will really stretch him, why not offer a reward that will help him get there. But if you know full well your child can do something, then offering a treat for that is more of a bribe. Example. Blaine can do the grocery store just great. But say (like Danielle mentioned) I take him to the grocery store hungry so he's whiny. Then I say "just be quiet and I'll get you a sucker." That's more of a bribe. I need to take care of his needs and then he can do it. Does that make sense? I feel like I'm rambling!

In general, I think we need to steer away from edible incentives being the main source of motivation. Of course this is a whole other post. I just think if we treat our children (and ourselves!) less often, then things are really a TREAT! I feel like I indulge myself so often that nothing is really special anymore. Know what I mean? If we are constantly treating our children, then it just becomes the norm, and then we start to see entitlement replace gratitude.

Rachael said...

Danielle, I love your point about rewards that actually connect to the issue. And Emily, I totally agree with non food-based rewards...I think that can be a slippery slope.

I think one of the best things we've done is to explain things beforehand--i.e. what our expectations are. We actually don't do a lot of tangible rewards, or we try to circumvent the issue entirely. So, for instance, rather than rewarding our kids with a treat for picking up their toys, I'll say, "Okay, time to pick up toys! And if we pick them up quickly, then we will have time to read a story, but if we go very very slow and stop to play, then we will not have time for a story." It gets kind of pedantic, but it seems to click for them.

As far as rewards go, we've had good success with sticker charts--it's amazing what kids will do for a gold star. We also tie larger rewards to a certain number of stars--so, for instance, when we were working on good manners at the table, we rewarded our daughter with new plates when she had filled up her chart (again, amazing what a little girl will do for a pink flowery plate). My parents had great success with new pajamas at the end of stay-in-bed sticker charts, etc.

Someone else also touched on expectations--I think that was such a great point and so important to really make clear to our children. If we don't explain beforehand exactly what we expect them to do or not do, they don't necessarily understand the appropriate behavior. I also find that often my expectations are too high or don't reflect what my children are actually capable of, because I think in terms of what's reasonable for me to do and then automatically apply that to them, so I always need to scale back, think of something appropriate for their age, and then carefully explain that beforehand (i.e. "Please walk next to me at the grocery store and only touch the things I give you to put in the cart," rather than just "Behave in the store").

And while we're not directly talking about this, I think the same thing applies to punishing negative behavior--it's important to have established consequences so that you're not doing something in the heat of the moment and your kids don't know whether to expect a spanking, a time-out, or a verbal reprimand for identical behaviors on different days.

Sally said...

I actually read one of Dr. Phills books one time and he talked about this very issue. I don't remember all the specifics of it, but his opinion is that rewards are a very effective method. Not just for small children but kids of all ages. Obviously he talked about certain boundrys and what sorts of things were appropriate and what was not. I guess I'll need to re read it now.

I think the difference between a bribe and a reward is simply a matter of control. If a mom is having to bribe their kids to do something than that tells me the kids are in control not the parent.

Alissa said...

I am all about "positive reinforcement." You can call it a bribe if you want to. My favorites are things that are not things. Such as: one on one parent time, reading an extra story, letting the child be "in charge" for 30 minutes, picking which park to go to, etc.

Katie said...

I am sorry folks but I have to disagree to an extent. First off to me a reward and bribing is the same thing. Lets call a spade a spade people.

Children under age 8 have been proven to have no sense of empathy. They don't get anything but me me me, look out for number 1. I guess you can call me a lazy parent but I use bribes! Maybe not every day, but most. And I do not consider myself a lazy parent. I am just appealing to their nature to get them to get things done! I of course explain to them why they need to do things but that most often doesn't help, it just enrages them more.

Not only do I offer the occasional bribe (reward, call it what you will) I also threaten! (Usually by taking things away like TV time.)

I use time out and "alone time" as well.

This post comes after a particularly difficult week so maybe I am just feeling cynical, but I would wager most of you guys don't have school age kids.

Sorry for not agreeing. I just think it's easy to judge.

Anonymous said...

I'm not 100% opposed to bribes. I think how you explain it is important -- this goes along with something Rachael above said. Someone (maybe my mom?) taught me to tell kids, "First we'll do this, and then..." Which doesn't sound like a bribe to the child, it just sounds like life having order. My older children know they can play a video game after they get all of their jobs done. Am I bribing? Maybe. But what I'm really trying to teach them is that you get to do something fun after the work is done, which is a good concept for adults too. We don't typically use food as a reward at our house, but we've been known to take away a treat if someone doesn't eat their healthy food -- seems appropriate, no? I think if you're trying to elicit appropriate behavior from a toddler in a store, you could offer a sucker or a piece of gum right then as a distraction, as opposed to using "bribing language." I don't know if this makes sense to anyone else, but to me what you're saying to the child is usually more important than the treat itself.

danielle said... are right...I don't think most of us have school aged children, and I am sure that parenting and behavior issues and the best way to deal with them change as your kids get older etc. I love to hear your perspective since you have so much more experience in the parenting department. Also, knowing you, I am %100 positive that you are not a lazy parent. And what you call "threaten" I call "time out from positive reinforcement"...but its the same thing. And I think its a great tool for guiding good behavior. Probably especially in older kids.

Sugar... said...

I wish I had something more to say on the matter, but I'm coming up blank, plus there is SO much to say on this subject, that anything sounds vague. You know what I mean? You'd think that I'd have it all figured out after having 4 kids, but I'm still learning. I'm finding that each situation is different. I love giving my kids gifts (or bribes, or rewards, it's all the same to me) and seeing them light up at a roll of stickers or a bag of skittles! I do not reward bad behavior. I teach them how they should act beforehand, and they know that throwing a tantrum is a bad way to ask for attention. If I gave in and bribed an ill behaving child with a treat, what would that do? It would teach them that I'm a ninny and a sucker. I'm a tender mom, but I'm not a sucker. I have expectations. They also have expectations for me, and I try to live up to those as well. Children are entitled to one on one time, so we go on mom and dad dates with them once a month. It is so helpful in understanding their personalities and individual needs. The amaze me!

We are all trying to get by and do the best we can, aren't we?

Traci said...

You guys are awesome! I've really loved reading all your comments and have learned a lot. I LOVE Annes comment: "If you're asking something of your child that will really stretch him, why not offer a reward that will help him get there. But if you know full well your child can do something, then offering a treat for that is more of a bribe."
I can't say I have much to add but in our household we try to reinforce good behavior with excitement and making sure that she knows she should be proud of herself instead of just me being proud of her. It makes her want to repeat good behavior for herself and she will be less likely to hold her bad behavior over my or her dads head (does that makes sense?)
But with that said sometimes i am a "lazy mom" I just am not patient so in those instances I will give her anything just to have peace for a minute I just need to make sure that I don't repeat that too often or she expects it.

lori said...

Great topic and great comments! Wish I had more time to think through my own feelings and write them out - maybe tonight! In the meantime, thanks for the wisdom, friends!

Joan said...

Bribe/Reward/Whatever. Do what works---now as well as what will yield positive behavior in the future. The issue for me is I'm not always sure how to accomplish that end and I'm often experimenting. I am perpetually involved in trial and error. Children are constantly evolving and therefore I am always readjusting and fine tuning. Not that I am not consistent--but like I forces me to evaluate them and their needs regularly.
I am a firm believer that EVERY child is ENTIRELY different and for me to subscribe to one parenting manual is just not possible OR appropriate.
Ultimately our children want time--time with us: Eye contact, interaction, smiles, positive reinforcement. But with that being said, I am an advocate of effective and stern discipline. Although that's another forum for another day :)
So, in answer to your question, Anne. No, you are not a bad mom for "bribing" or "rewarding" Blaine with gum (whatever you want to call it). If it were me I might, before walking into the store, say, "Hey, Blaine--let's try our hardest to be good to our brother and listen to mom while we are in the store because that will make us feel happy. AND I think maybe we should have a surprise later if we can all behave together."
Okay...I realize you are probably laughing out loud about the cheese oozing from that comment...but really, hear me out:
You are including yourself in the scenario which provides him an opportunity to feel connected to you (as in this is a challenge for you too---we all know it is..I tend to lose it in the grocery store, myself). You are also admitting that you are accountable for your behavior too.
As far as the "surprise" goes you can decide that how you want. It might be a craft later or a bubble blowing contest or a piece of candy.
As Emily said (the girl is loaded with pearls of wisdom): teaching our children how to love, serve, etc. for the right reasons is the goal and it is a process that takes time. For now, tangible rewards seem to be appropriate and effective in most cases when raising young children.

Mindy said...

I don't usually leave comments in places like this, but after reading the above feedback my mind is whirling. After 25 years of parenting, here's what I know.
Rewards make the world go 'round. How many of us who have jobs would go to work if we didn't get paid? Appropriate rewards are great!

*Be careful not to reinforce bad behavior because you're lazy or tired.
*Be careful to notice, praise, and reinforce behavior you want continued.
* Be deliberate! Parent with a plan. Better to prepare and prevent rather than repair and repent. Identify qualities and behavior you want your children to learn, then intentionally give them lots of opportunities to practice that behavior. i.e. kindness, patience, work, dependability, sharing, etc. Linda and Richard Eyre teach this beautifully in their book, "Teaching Children Responsibilty."
*Be selective about threats and taking away privileges. Dr. Lynn Scoresby is a champion with this. If kids misbehave while eating out, instead of saying, "Because you acted so badly, we're never eating out again!" he would teach, "Because you acted so poorly, we're going to go out for dinner again tomorrow so you can practice getting it right."
*Simple, open communication is critical. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish hit a homerun on this topic in their book, "How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk." A must read for all parents.
*Say what you mean and mean what you say! I can't count how many times I've heard myself say to one child or another, "You can ask me a million times, and a million times I'll say no. They always stop asking.
* Parenting is not for the fainthearted! Gird up your loins, sistas, and keep trying. Never ever lose your sense of wonder or your sense of humor. Find joy in simple things. Don't be in a hurry.