By Robin Stephens

We have all been there — that last minute dash to the grocery store with multiple kids in tow — and then it happens: the proverbial, albeit desperate, offer of a candy bar merely for safe and semi-embarrassing passage out of the public arena with our unruly band of progeny.

At these moments you might wonder who really is in charge here? Have you just offered a temporary bribe to your children to behave or have they blackmailed you into a payoff before they will behave? Episodes like these can leave a parent feeling played and powerless. Rewards in the form of a bribe may result in temporary obedience, but at what cost? It buys some time at the moment, but our efforts to control our child’s behavior through offering bribes could be seen as manipulative as the child who has become the skilled negotiator. In short, we are teaching our kids to be master manipulators. Clearly, bribery backfires. Kids will call upon this strategy often, learning that acting-out equates to parental suffering and parental suffering equates to — chocolate.

Is there ever an instance where offering a reward for a desired behavior is appropriate?

Rewards versus Bribery (Is there a difference?)

So, what is the difference between giving a bribe for good behavior versus rewarding it? A general rule of thumb is to view bribery as something that occurs under duress. It is a knee-jerk reaction and an undeserved response to a child in the throes of bad behavior. It happens quickly and the decision to reward is both frantic and frenetic in nature. It is an effort to change behavior on the spot.

Conversely, the effective use of rewards is premeditated. In fact, it is conscientiously planned. You are compensating your child for good behavior, not because you are being manipulated or extorted, but because they have exhibited model behavior. You have effectively removed negotiation tools on both sides.

Is Rewarding Ever a Good Idea?

The idea of reward to facilitate desired outcome arrived on the scene in behavioral science circles via rats running mazes for cheese and the salivations of Pavlov’s dogs. It was an exciting notion that this behavioral modification theory could be applied to humans. Now, however, most child development professionals view offering external rewards to children as a means to erode intrinsic motivation: something behavioral psychologists were not too concerned about with their rat subjects. Studies suggest that intrinsic interest in a task, the sense that something is worth doing for its own sake, diminishes when reward is involved. The activity becomes less enjoyable in its own right when it is done for gain. Rewards can lead to an attributional shift where the child will only perform a task for the reward. Rewards can also result in an addiction-type of effect for children where rewards like stickers and candy become “gateway rewards” for bigger and better. Once the reward is expected, the effect is reduced: they want more. “Please, sir, can I have less?” said no child —ever.

Rewards can lead to a false sense of entitlement for a child; however, even with the aforementioned negative outcomes, some child development specialists believe that rewards can be an effective way to reinforce appropriate behavior in a restricted context.

Conscientious Planning and Affection: Adding Intrinsic Value to Extrinsic Reward

If, as a parent, you are seeking a positive way to occasionally bestow an external reward upon your child, there is a formula. Rewards in terms of affection, strategic recognition, and thoughtful planning, in addition to an external reward, can be a productive way to reinforce appropriate behavior. For an extrinsic reward to be effective these intrinsic components should be present. Recently there have been studies warning against the dangers of praising kids too much. Rather than praise the child’s potential, praise the effort. Acknowledging a child’s effort in exercising restraint in the restaurant takes the form of a literal pat on the back or a hug: a genuine show of affection. This strategy, in addition to a task-appropriate external reward can prove effective. A task-appropriate reward for desired restaurant behavior might be a family night out to enjoy a favorite pizza. The added reward in terms of affection and social connectedness can allow a parent to bestow an occasional external reward as they see fit. Rewards should also be random and unexpected to be effective. The above example could reflect this concept by going out for pizza on a day not usually designated for outings.

Also, of great importance is the development of a list of rewards that is the currency that your child values. Ideally, your child can even be involved in the list-making process. The key point: unlike the unplanned extorted reward at the market, these rewards are preplanned with clear behavioral expectations.  

Bribe Avoiding Strategies

Bribes are parent’s easiest way out. It is easier to turn on the Disney Channel to curtail pandemonium than to play undercover detective to determine why one sibling’s favorite toy is suddenly missing. Taking the time to discover underlying causes of behavior in the moment serves to do just the opposite of a bribe: it provides long-term impact with the opportunity for learning.

Ultimately, you are the expert on your own family! When, where, how, and why to reward is one of the privileges and prerogatives of parenthood. While it is likely that the toy isle in the market or the Dr.’s office waiting room are likely to solicit some unwelcome responses from time to time, with a little strategic planning, affection, and understanding, positive behavior can be its own reward. Then, your chosen extrinsic rewards can reflect the values of your family — and make child extortion a distant memory.

Bio: 

Robin Stephens of The Growing Room Academy holds a bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies with a focus on early childhood/adolescent development, family systems, and socio-cultural perspectives of the family. As a Certified Simplicity Parenting Coach©, Robin provides personal family coaching and facilitates parenting workshops for schools and parent organizations. She also is involved in youth advocacy organizations providing support for LGBTQ youth and their families.