Bribery Vs Rewards: What’s the Difference?

We have all seen it: The meltdown of nuclear portions right in the middle of toy aisle at the supermarket. Red face, hands tightly wound into fists, and maybe even a foot stomp.

And that was the dad.

At that point, all the parent that is attempting to diffuse the situation wants is to make the screaming stop. Quicky. They will try anything. Perhaps you’ve seen a parent say, “If you will stop crying, I will get you a sucker/balloon/some other material item.”

Miraculously, the child stops crying and the shoppers continue on their merry way.

What has just happened here? Was it bribery or reward?

Technically, it was both. The parent bribed the child to change the undesired behavior. Meanwhile, the child was rewarded for the undesired behavior.

Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Let’s look at it from the child’s point of view. For this demonstration, pretend the child is a girl named Sarah.

Sarah and her dad are at the grocery store. On the shelf, Sarah sees a stuffed kitten she would like. She asks her dad for it, but he says, “No.”

Well, this kitty looks just like the one on Sarah’s favorite TV program and really wants it. She decides to start crying and yelling, “Please Daddy! I want it! PLEASE! PLEASE!”

Sarah knows from past experiences that crying loudly will get her something. Dad finally says, “If you will stop crying, I will buy you a balloon on the way out.”

Sarah stops crying, and she gets a balloon. Getting the stuffed kitty was not as important as getting something at the store. The kitty was just a reminder. The next time little Sarah wants something from the store, all she has to do is scream.

Bribery and rewards for children are often used interchangeably. How the two are used gives vastly different behaviors in our children.

In most cases, an undesired behavior is already being displayed and you want to change it quickly. To change the behavior, you dangle the proverbial carrot (bribe) in hopes of better behavior:
“Stop crying and I’ll buy you a balloon.”
“I will buy you ice cream if you will just sit quietly in church.”
“I will give you $20 for every A that is on your report card.”

However, the fundamental problem with bribery and the way it is generally used is that the child will do anything to get a “prize.” Lie, cheat, steal…it doesn’t matter. Moreover, if you are trying to get your child do something that he or she won’t do by simply being asked, that is also bribery. These sorts of arrangements reinforce to the child to hold out for something better. Nothing in life comes for free! As your child grows, the cost of bribe will go up along with it.

Rewards look eerily similar to bribes, but when used properly will garner different results. With rewards, you should be asking for good behavior. Each good behavior should not ultimately end with a material item, either. Rewards can be planned out and monitored over a pre-determined amount of time or even a surprise.

When rewards are used correctly the child will benefit more from the feeling of the doing the right thing, rather than getting his or her way. The key is to acknowledge the positive behavior and ignore the negative.

In using the reward system correctly, it would look something like this:
“Sarah, I have noticed how hard you have been studying lately. How about this Saturday we go skating?”
“Joe, I appreciate how you completed all of your chores this week without being asked. You are showing how much I can trust you.”
“I really liked how you practiced dribbling the soccer ball with your brother, Sally. I bet he plays even better this weekend because of you!”

It probably seems like a grey line between bribery and rewards. At times, they can overlap. A bribe every now and again won’t turn your child into a sociopath. However, rewards will ensure a much sweeter life.