Sometimes we get wrapped up in trying to get our kids to modify their behavior at
whatever cost. It may seem convenient at the time however, there are long-term effects that are
hard to undo. One basic rule we teach the families in our practice is: when trying to build a new behavior, do not present or mention the reward prior to seeing the desired behavior (for this is a bribe, and conditions kids to wait for a “good deal” prior to behaving the way they are expected to behave). Often parents wonder about the differences between bribes and rewards. This blog will help you to decipher the difference between the two and help you navigate this common parenting pitfall.

Rewards encourage positive behavior and are used throughout our lifespan to build or
strengthen desired behaviors. Rewards are present in our lives from infancy and continue into
adulthood. Getting a paycheck for your hard work is an example of how rewards are used in
adult life.

Parenting is so much about teaching new behaviors and the principles of learning are
largely based in methods of reinforcement. Reinforcement is defined as a consequence that
follows a behavior, which serves to increase the behavior over time. Bribing on the other hand,
does not follow the behavior. With bribes, the reward is mentioned (or actually dangled) in front of the child prior to them completing the behavior or task in an effort to increase their motivation for doing so. For example, saying to your child, “I’ll give you your video game if you finish your vegetables,” motivates them in a way that only works if they get something in return. Overtime, children learn to wait for a “good deal” and it becomes harder and harder to mobilize them for action without presenting the bribe in advance.

Needless to say, bribes are ineffective in the long run and actually set the stage for more disruptions in the parent-child relationship as well as overall listening skills. Rewards may take more time to mobilize a child to action but over time they are longer lasting and more powerful. Understanding the difference between bribes and rewards is the beginning of how we can move towards more effective and grounded parenting. I encourage you to begin implementing the strategy of rewarding instead of bribing and notice the differences of how unwanted behaviors begin to disappear and desired behaviors become more visible. Good luck!