Is It Really so Bad to Bribe Your Child?
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.
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.
How to Use Rewards Effectively With Your Child
A more detailed discussion of positive parenting practices can be found in the book , 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: Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children
- 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.
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