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Is It Really so Bad to Bribe Your Child?

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, specializes in pediatrics, behavioral health and stress and coping in everyday life.

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It's a well-accepted principle of that bribing children for good behavior is not a constructive parenting technique. The belief is that bribery is used only by desperate parents, and many consider it is to be “bad parenting." But virtually all parents use it sometimes (maybe in secret), even while publicly agreeing with those who criticise the strategy and who also likely use it in private. After all, sometimes parents just need children to do what they say. The arguments get old, and let’s face it: bribery works. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So why do so many "experts" give the advice to avoid using bribery to get children to comply when nothing else seems to be working?

It's a common belief that bribes are a bad idea, used only by desperate parents. But used correctly in the form of positive reinforcement, this parenting strategy can help children learn what's expected of them and become compliant with parental instructions.

Why Do Some Experts Say Bribing Children Is a Bad Idea?

The basic argument against bribing children that many experts as well as parents make is that children should be internally motivated, not externally motivated by rewards. Many parents believe that children should not be given rewards for doing things they should be doing anyway. This includes chores like making their bed, setting the table, putting their dirty clothes in the hamper or cleaning their room.

Emily McMason, a certified parenting coach, explains it this way:

“We want kids to do things because they know it's the right thing to do and they get satisfaction from conquering something new, or contributing to the family, group or class."

McMason says that while we think that rewarding children’s behavior will make it more likely they will continue to engage in the desired activity, it actually has the opposite effect. She believes that we are teaching children the worth of something such that if they don’t receive the reward in the future they won’t engage in the behavior.

So if we offer a child a scoop of ice cream for reading 100 pages in a book, they will read exactly 100 pages just to get the reward and stop there. They will then resist reading in the future unless they are offered the reward they have come to expect. McMason goes on to say that some children won’t be interested in ice cream or whatever the reward is so they won’t read at all.

Rewards in the form of praise and special time with a parent can often be one of the strongest motivators of all

Rewards in the form of praise and special time with a parent can often be one of the strongest motivators of all

Refuting the Arguments Against Bribing or Rewarding Children for Good Behavior

There are several flaws in the arguments against using rewards with children. First, while as adults there are things we value for their sake alone, such as having a clean room and a made-up bed, this is not something we are born valuing. Children don’t necessarily look around their room and take pleasure in the fact that the toys are put up and the bedspread straightened. They need to be taught to value these things.

Rewards are a good way to accomplish this, when done the right way. Plus, even adults do certain things only to gain a reward and we don’t consider it bribery. Would you really go to work every day if you weren’t getting paid for it?

The argument that rewards not only don’t encourage positive behavior but actually discourage it is not shown in the research literature. There is an extensive history of empirical research demonstrating the effectiveness of using rewards or positive reinforcement to help children learn positive behavior (e.g. Baum & Forehand, 1981; Forehand, Sturgis, McMahon, Aguar, Green, Wells, & Breiner, 1979; Kaminski, Valle, Filene, & Boyle, 2008;.Kazdin, 1997; Long, Edwards, & Bellando, 2017).

Positive reinforcement has been shown to help increase pro-social behaviors in children, compliance with completing chores, rule following, positive bedtime behavior, homework completion, meal time behavior and brushing teeth among other types of desirable behavior. Rewards have also been shown to effectively establish behaviors that the child is just learning. Parents report a high degree of satisfaction regarding the outcome when using rewards to reinforce their child’s behavior. Many also report that implementing rewards for good behavior with their child resulted in more positive interactions.

Numerous studies have also shown that positive behavioral gains continue at various follow-up intervals from one year to four and a half years after the positive reinforcement was thinned for a behavior then eliminated entirely (e.g. Baum & Forehand, 1981; Long, N., Edwards, M. C., & Bellando, J. 2017). There was no decrease in positive behavior across time such that children maintained their positive behavior in the absence of the material rewards from the end of treatment through the four and a half year follow-up.

This counters the position that children will only do whatever it takes to get the reward and not go further. The argument that some kids might not like the reward and so they might not work for it is very simply handled by ensuring the reward is something the child wants.

Why Bribing Your Child Really Isn’t So Bad

While there are some critics who don’t recommend using rewards to encourage desirable behavior in children, there are many who believe it to be the best way for children to learn what’s expected of them and to become compliant with these expectations. Child psychologist Dr. Liz Matheis believes that bribery in the form of rewarding children for positive behavior isn’t a bad practice. She says:

“You're trying to get your child to engage in some sort of positive behavior in order to work towards a specific goal. Basically, you're offering a reinforcement for the desired behavior. You're setting up the series of events that will take place, your expectation, and the reward that you will offer for compliance."

Matheis states that children enjoy working towards rewards but it’s best to set up the contingency regarding what behavior will be rewarded along with the reward that will be provided ahead of time. The best time to do this is when you and your child are calm not in a heated moment. Rewards don't have to be material. Praise and spending special time together can often serve as one of the most powerful rewards for children.

As the parent, you should remain in control of the situation throughout such that rewards aren’t only offered in times of desperation. This type of situation can backfire on you. Essentially, if you only reward your child when they are acting out or throwing a tantrum that is the behavior you are reinforcing. In such cases the bribery involves pleading with the child to be good while offering them something they want if they stop behaving badly and do as you’ve asked.

When you do this, you are in fact reinforcing the bad behavior such that the child learns that to get rewarded, all they have to do is whatever you don’t want them to do. They learn if they just keep it up for a long enough time and at a high enough intensity, you’ll eventually give in and offer a reward. To be successful, this needs to be reversed where you are giving rewards only for the behavior you want to see.

Screen time can be used as a reward for good behavior

Screen time can be used as a reward for good behavior

How to Use Rewards Effectively With Your Child

A more detailed discussion of positive parenting practices can be found in the book Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, which describes one of the most highly praised and best proven parenting programs available today. Some tips and pointers for using rewards to increase compliance in your child that can help you be successful in this effort include the following:

  • Establish the contingency ahead of time: Don't make decisions on consequences in the heat of the moment
  • Choose a single behavior to reward: It’s usually best to work on just one behavior at a time, and once it’s established move on to another behavior. The first time, to get the child used to the way the contingency works, start with something easy that the child can do without much effort. After that one, you can move on to something a bit harder.
  • Choose a meaningful reinforcer: If your child doesn’t like ice cream don’t use it as a reinforcer. Use small reinforcers for frequent behaviors and larger ones for behaviors that don’t occur very often.
  • Consistency: When you first start rewarding your child for good behavior, begin by rewarding them every time the behavior occurs. This will help establish a habit.
  • Thin the reward: After the behavior is occurring regularly, begin thinning the behavior by only rewarding the behavior perhaps two out or three times then one out of three times etc. It’s best if this is done as an average such that the child isn’t certain when the reinforcer will occur. So if you are reward one in four times, maybe you reinforce after the fourth occurrence, then the sixth, fourth, then the second etc. This will keep the behavior occurring at a high rate.
  • Eliminate the reward: Once you have thinned the reward to the point that it seems that the child seems to have established a habit and doesn’t necessarily need the reward anymore, eliminate it.
  • Establish a new behavior to reward: It’s often best to immediately establish another behavior you want to increase and begin rewarding that one.
  • Make sure not to reinforce negative behaviors instead of positive ones
  • Use praise and special time with your child in addition to other types of rewards

One important thing to remember is to think of the process as positive reinforcement for compliance or rewarding compliance not bribery. Reframing how you think about what you are doing will help you feel more positively about the process so that you perceive it as an acceptable method of teaching your child positive behavior.

References

Baum, C. G., & Forehand, R. (1981). Long term follow-up assessment of parent training by use of multiple outcome measures. Behavior Therapy, 12(5), 643-652.

Forehand, R., Sturgis, E. T., McMahon, R. J., Aguar, D., Green, K., Wells, K. C., & Breiner, J. (1979). Parent behavioral training to modify child noncompliance: Treatment generalization across time and from home to school. Behavior Modification, 3(1), 3-25.

Kaminski, J. W., Valle, L. A., Filene, J. H., & Boyle, C. L. (2008). A meta-analytic review of components associated with parent training program effectiveness. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 36(4), 567-589.

Kazdin, A. E. (1997). Parent management training: Evidence, outcomes, and issues. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 36(10), 1349-1356.

Long, N., Edwards, M. C., & Bellando, J. (2017). Parent training interventions. In Handbook of Childhood Psychopathology and Developmental Disabilities Treatment(pp. 63-86). Springer, Cham.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Natalie Frank

Comments

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on January 12, 2019:

It's always easy to provide advice as to what parents might do, but in real life how all of that plays out is quite a different story. What is a great idea on paper doesn't always work quite the way you need it to in real life. Thanks for reading and for the comment, Pamela. Happy New Year!

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on December 25, 2018:

Thanks for the comment Dora. I think you mention an important point - that parents need to make decisions about how to handle behavior for each individual child. Different things will work for different children and no one solution will fit all. Finding what works in the most positive manner for each child is a key. Thanks for reading and for stopping by.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on December 25, 2018:

I think so as well, Liz. Setting rules and boundaries ahead of time when everyone is calm so as to plan how the chart or other method of reinforcement will be used is important for success. Hope you are having a good holiday season and that you have a happy New Year.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 20, 2018:

I am long past raising children, but I found this article to be very interesting. y M4 year old granddaughter fights going to bed almost every night and will stay awake for a long time before actually falling asleep. The parents have used rewards some of the time, but more often "if you go to sleep like a good girl tomorrow we will do such and such". They do follow through with their promises, but it still continues to be a problem they hope she will outgrow.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 20, 2018:

Thanks for sharing insights from both sides on this important topic. Parents need wisdom to make decisions concerning each child in each situation. You gave them much to consider.

Liz Westwood from UK on December 20, 2018:

Thanks for the detailed response. I agree completely with what you say. Knowing the rules and the boundaries for sticker charts by parents and children seems to be key.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on December 20, 2018:

Sticker charts work well with many kids when used correctly. As with any behavioral technique they should not be planned or put into place just because or or when a parent is desperate. This results in something that isn't well thought through and not consistently implemented. Instead it's only implemented when the parent is again desperate. It's also good for things that that happen fairy frequently such that you don't want to give a reward every time the child exhibits or inhibits a behavior. So if the child has a bad habit of hitting others you don't want to give them a toy or whatever every five minutes they go without hitting someone. But if you break the day into segments such as every 4 hours and they get a sticker for each period they go without hitting someone then at the end of the day (or week etc.) they get something special, it makes more sense. Parents can also have kids earn privileges such watching t.v. or computer time such that they don't get it if they don't earn it.

The key to sticker charts or any behavioral principle is to define the behavior that is to be changed so that the parent and child fully understand it, set the appropriate contingency based on frequency of the behavior, have a way of monitoring the behavior and determining when to award a sticker, and decide on an appropriate reward and reward schedule. Thanks for stopping by and for the comment.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on December 20, 2018:

Heck, Rochelle, for $50,000 I might be willing to move to their country!

I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, bribes generally are offered when the child is already misbehaving and the parent is desperate after trying everything else to get them to stop. The problem is it is not for the absence of the behavior it is for stopping a behavior that has been going on usually for a while. The classic example is the child who wants a candy bar in the grocery store and keeps whining and asking and crying until the parent says, "Fine," and gets them the candy bar. The next time the parent thinks, "I'm not giving in," and genuinely tries but the child now whines and cries louder, maybe adding some screaming to the mix when the parent continues to hold out until once again the parent gives in, not knowing what else to do in that situation. Next time same thing only now the child throws an all out tantrum complete with screaming and banging their head on the ground until the parent gives in. Through all this, the parent bribing the child to stop acting out while demanding a candy bar has only taught them if they just escalate the behavior enough their parent will give them what they want.

I want to say here that I am in no way blaming parents or suggesting they are "bad" parents or don't know how to parent. It's certainly no easy task, the hardest in the world really I think, and it's so hard to handle situations in public with people watching and no great options.

Your focus on focusing on the positive rather than the negative is a great strategy. One thing we recommend to teachers is to attend and comment on the children doing what they are supposed to do and ignore (within reason) the children who aren't. Children work for adult attention, even if it's negative attention. So if a teacher only focuses on the children who aren't on task or in their seats, others will likely start acting similar to gain the attention also. Instead, when teachers say, "I like how you're sitting in your seat, Johnny," or "Good job paying attention, Megan," etc. others will see that's how you gain the teacher's attention. Obviously, this won't help with every behavior problem but switching the contingency from attending and commenting on negative behavior to doing so for positive behavior can change the atmosphere of the class (or home). Thanks for your comments and for reading. As always your comments added to the discussion.

Liz Westwood from UK on December 20, 2018:

Some people I know are great advocates of the star chart. A child gets star stickers for e.g. staying in bed at night. When they have collected a certain number, they get a gift. Seems like incentivized behaviour to me. But when a parent is desperate and it works, it is probably worth a try.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on December 18, 2018:

This is great advice. Your step-by-step approach is a good way to proceed.

There is a fine line between "bribe" and "reward" I think. Usually "bribe" is for eliminating negative behavior and "reward" is for working toward accomplishing a positive behavior.

Most of us do work for money, and suffer natural consequences for bad behavior.

When I was teaching I always found it more effective to say "I need good listeners" instead of saying "Stop Talking!".

Offering a bribe to stop bad behavior can have negative consequences. The bad behavior can be started and sttopped everytime the culprit seeks a new reward.

I was thinking of this when the suggestion was offered to give $50,000 to migrants who agreed to return to their own country. How do you think that would work out?

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