October 30th, 2016

Be a Rewarder not a Briber

The countdown to Christmas is now on! In the weeks before the festive season (8 weeks, since you ask) many parents will use the (potential) forthcoming visit of the portly gentleman as an inducement to good behaviour. Otherwise known as a bribe or threat. Don’t cringe –we’ve all done it. Who hasn’t said “Santa won’t bring you any presents if you don’t behave?” Which brings up the whole question of bribes, a standard-issue tool in the average parental tool basket, but one that has some downsides. So what is the difference between a bribe and a reward? Or is there no difference? Are they both problematic? This is an important question that we ponder in our classes and I distil years of thought on this issue for you below.

My dictionary defines a bribe as ‘an illegal payment made in exchange for favours or influence’ but that’s not how parents use the word. A bribe is something appealing which is offered prior to a behaviour as an inducement to the child to behave in a particular way. Correspondingly a threat is the promise of an unappealing event if the child does not behave as desired. A reward would be given after the behaviour in acknowledgment of that behaviour.

But as in many things in family life it’s all a little bit more nuanced than that. Let’s look at the language of inducement.

Bribe = “I’ll buy you these sweeties if you promise not to make a fuss about sitting in the shopping trolley.”

Reward = “You have been so patient while I was helping Ethan with his homework. You didn’t interrupt and just did something else for a while. Now you have earned a game of UNO with me.”

In the first example, the ‘if you do X you can have Y’ model involves a loss of parental control. The child is firmly in charge as the parent pays a price for what they want the child to do. One of the concerns parents quite rightly have is that this price goes up! ‘Bribe inflation’ means that the child will raise the stakes and may end up only doing what’s required for a treat and that treat will get bigger and bigger. “I won’t do it for 3 sweeties. I’ll do it for 4.” This teaches our children that they can manipulate situations with their parents and that ‘rules’ are negotiable.

Another issue with this model is that the inducement is portrayed as the coveted thing whereas the required behaviour is something to be endured only to earn the treat. This is problematic if we are bribing our children to do things we think are intrinsically good for them. And why else would we be requiring them to do it? Eg we say “you can play on the iPad if you do your reading/homework” or “you can’t have dessert unless you eat your broccoli.”  or “you won’t get a story unless you brush your teeth”. While stories and dessert and iPads no doubt have intrinsic appeal we actually want our children to see homework, reading, eating healthily and brushing teeth as of value in themselves. We also set up all kinds of problematic eating associations if we use certain foods as inducements.

When we use bribes our children are unlikely to learn anything beyond the skills of manipulation and bargaining, and the emphasis is on behaving well purely for material reward. In fact we want our children to do what’s required because it is the right thing to do.

So if bribes are so problematic what can we do? Is there a place for rewards? We think so.

Some rewards straightforwardly come after the behaviour, as in our example. But sometimes we may want to set up rewards in advance, while being wary of the pitfalls of bribes. A different way of speaking is the ‘When you have done X you will have earned Y’ model. This language is much more intentional and conveys trust that the child will do as required. This is much less coercive and focuses on empowering the child herself to learn the value of the behaviour, rather than being centred on material gain. Rewards may often be the natural positive consequence of the positive behaviour e.g. having extra time to play because they got ready so quickly or staying dry because they remembered their raincoat. Importantly rewards are earned and they occur after the child has accomplished something.

When I see you leave Tom’s house without any fuss when I collect you this evening as we discussed, you will be able to invite Tom to come and play at our house next week, as you’ll have shown me you know how to make a play date a real success.” (Empathise that it can be hard to stop playing if you’re in the middle of something fun and that it’s the parent’s timetable that always takes precedence.)

It’s important to have realistic expectations. Don’t expect your young child to brush his teeth or do his homework happily just because these are the ‘right things to do’. He will acquire those values over time and then he too will think they are the right thing to do. In the meantime you will teach him to do what’s required (repeatedly) by:

  • modelling the desired behaviour
  • having clear expectations about what’s required
  • commenting favourably (and sometimes rewarding) when he does it
  • following through in non-punitive ways when he doesn’t do it

The behaviours become habitual over time and then are internalised as values. Two things to remember about rewards:

  1. Use them sparingly and make sure they’re non-material
  2. Talk up the intrinsic benefits of the required task “Thank you for standing still and letting me rub in your sun cream. That’s really responsible. It shows me you understand how important it is to look after your skin, to stop yourself from getting burnt. Now you can have fun all afternoon playing in the paddling pool with your friends.”
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