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  • Dr. Amber Ufford

Understanding the Difference Between Bribery and Rewards in Parenting

Updated: Jul 3

One of the trickier parts of parenting is learning how to respond to different behaviors from your child without feeling like you're giving in to every demand and tantrum by resorting to bribery.

In fact, a common dilemma many parents face is distinguishing between offering bribes and giving rewards. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they carry fundamentally different implications and effects on children’s behavior and development. As both a clinical psychologist and a parent, it's a topic that often comes up in conversations with fellow parents, and it’s easy to get the two mixed up. Let's take a look at the differences between bribery and rewards, including how we can use this understanding to foster better development in our kids.

What Exactly is Bribery?

Bribery in the context of parenting occurs when parents offer their child something desirable in order to stop undesirable behavior. Bribery often happens in the heat of the moment -- think of it as a "quick fix." It’s what happens when we, as parents, find ourselves offering something tempting to stop a meltdown in its tracks.

Picture this: we’re in the middle of a crowded grocery store, and our little one starts to whine and eventually throws a tantrum. In desperation, we might whisper, “If you stop crying, I’ll get you a lollipop.” It might work in the moment, but it teaches our kids that disruptive behavior is a ticket to getting what they want. Not the best lesson, right? In fact, while this approach might work temporarily, it's actually teaching children that this type of escalation might be rewarded, potentially leading to an increase in the behavior in the future.

An array of lollipops of different colors

And What About Rewards?

A reward, on the other hand, is an incentive aimed at encouraging good behavior or the completion of a task. Rewards are more about recognition and encouragement. They’re planned and given after our child shows positive behavior, not before. It’s a way of saying, "I see you, and I appreciate what you’re doing." For instance, after a week where your child has diligently done their homework every day, you might surprise them with a special family movie night. Rewards celebrate and reinforce good behavior by fostering intrinsic motivation and a sense of accomplishment in children.

Two smiling children lying down on the ground with a bucket of popcorn between them watching a movie

I've spoken with many parents who have started to feel burnt out with too many rewards and will say something to the effect of, "rewards don't work for my kid." After a little more digging, what I find is that the rewards they were using have lost their novelty and are no longer reinforcing! One way to prevent this is to offer a "menu" of rewards.

Rewards (or positive reinforcement) in parenting can include tangible rewards like toys or stickers, but there's so much more! My favorite types of rewards include: verbal praise and affection, physical affection, privileges like extra time riding their bike, activity-based rewards such as outings, and quality time spent together. However, be careful about using treats or screen time as a reward, which can actually create an unhealthy relationship or attraction to them.

Some of the most reinforcing and effective rewards I've seen have been silly things that parents can do with their child, like seeing who can do the most jumping jacks or having a dance party to Taylor Swift. Do what you think will work well for your child and their personality -- some kids love a good sticker, while others can't wait to see their parent show off their terrible (I mean amazing!) dance moves.

A family of four are jumping and dancing together in their living room

The Key Differences

Timing and Intent: Rewards come after the behavior and serve as a natural or logical outcome, whereas bribery often precedes it, feeling more like a negotiation or a plea.

Values: While rewards can teach the importance of effort and consistency, bribery might accidentally teach "manipulation." We want our kids to learn that good things come from doing good things—not from bargaining or tears.

Long-term Effects: Rewards can help build a foundation of good habits and self-discipline. Bribery, on the other hand, is like sticking a bandaid on the problem—it might cover it up for a while, but it doesn’t help our kids learn to manage their behavior or emotions effectively in the future.

Tips for Rewarding Effectively

  1. Consistency is Key: Make sure the rewards match the behavior. This helps children understand what’s expected and that their efforts are genuinely appreciated.

  2. Clarity Matters: Be clear about what behaviors will earn a reward. Kids thrive on knowing exactly what they can do to succeed.

  3. Encourage from Within: Try to focus on rewards that build internal or intrinsic motivation. Praise, extra reading time, or choosing what’s for dinner can be great rewards that encourage personal satisfaction.

  4. Get the Timing Right: When using a reward as part of an incentive system, make sure to give the reward as soon as it is earned (or as close as possible). Immediate reinforcers that can be experienced right away are more impactful than a reward that is too far in the future.

  5. Incentivize Appropriately: Only use rewards for things your child does not prefer to do, or needs motivation to complete. If you overuse rewards for things children already enjoy doing on their own, you can actually decrease intrinsic motivation!

  6. Keep it Proportional: The reward should fit the achievement or effort. Big rewards for small tasks can diminish their value, while small rewards for significant efforts might not adequately reflect your appreciation.

Wrapping It Up

As a parent and a psychologist, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of including rewards in my parenting toolkit. By using rewards judiciously and emphasizing intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation, we can encourage our children to develop healthy habits and attitudes that last a lifetime. Don't be afraid to get creative or silly with your reward menu, and don't forget to involve your child in coming up with options! Remember, each positive interaction is a step towards raising confident, capable kids.

An image of a child's white dresser covered in stickers
Actual picture of my daughter's dresser, where she keeps all the stickers she has earned over the years. Pro tip: the puffy stickers come off! 😊🎉 Flat stickers leave residue 🙃

What are your child's favorite rewards? Tell me below!


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