“Bribe, bribe, bribe,” a mother moaned to me. “That’s my entire parenting philosophy in one word. It’s the only way I can get my kids to do what I want. ‘If you’ll pick up your toys, I’ll give you a cookie.’ Where will it all end? ‘If you get straight A’s, I’ll give you a convertible?”

Since she didn’t ask for suggestions, I didn’t comment, but her words made me reflect on the problem with bribes, and the difference between bribes and rewards.

The basic difference, in my mind, is who is in charge of the behavior. With bribes, it is clearly the parent who decides what needs to be done, and who wields the offer designed to propel the kids into action.

Almost always, the bribe is something tangible, which also has the unfortunate aspect of hooking kids into gross materialism.

With rewards, it is the kids who decide upon a course of action, to which parents respond with positive recognition of verbal or tangible rewards. Rewards may be both intermittent, meaning provided only some of the time, and intangible, such as praise, attention, and recognition.

Let’s consider the same situation framed with both a bribe and a reward. Dad has become increasingly disturbed by his ten-year-old son Jacob’s room, filled with dirty clothes and bath towels on the floor, toys strewn everywhere, crumpled homework assignments far from the waste basket, and remains of several snacks and meals littered about.

Jacob has been told often enough what the expectations are for his clean room. Today Dad walks in, and says, “OK, Jacob, enough is enough. Get this room cleaned up before lunch today, and I’ll let you make a giant smoothie.” Jacob sets to work, gets the job done as specified, and Dad says, “OK, you can have your smoothie.”

Clearly the bribe worked, but Jacob did not develop any understanding of his own role in being responsible for a given task or controlling his own behavior.

Instead imagine that Dad, strolling by the messy room, comments, “Wow, looks like it could be time to get this room under control.” Nothing more. Jacob, surveying the mess, agrees and sets to work.

When Dad comes by later, he finds Jacob nearly done restoring order. “Hey, look at this room,” he says. “I can see how hard you have been working. Let’s go fix a smoothie when you’re ready for a break.”

In this scenario, Dad gives a gentle reminder of a responsibility that Jacob is well aware of.

When Jacob initiates appropriate actions, he is developing an understanding of himself as a competent person who knows what needs to be done and does it.

With Jacob in control, he ends up knowing his own capabilities, and becomes stronger. Dad’s positive attention and offer of the smoothie are appropriate rewards to reinforce these constructive attributes. Jacob will associate the good feelings about self with the good feelings in his tidy room.

Same smoothie, different outcomes of the scenario.

Here’s the point to consider. When this same event occurs next month, Dad #1 will be right back in the position of having to dangle the bribe before Jacob to jump-start his cleaning. Dad #2 will be more likely to find Jacob involved in cleaning.

Which action will Dad have to keep doing forever?
© Growing Child 2013 Please feel free to forward this article to a friend.