Parents can come up with surprisingly creative ways to redirect a child’s inappropriate behavior. However, it is important for parents to know what they are implementing because consistent use of any disciplinary tactic such as a bribe or reward can incur a positive result…or not.
What is the difference between bribes, incentives and rewards?
I once watched a friend struggle to get his young son to leave his side and go into his classroom. The boy held on to his dad, cried, then ran down the hall, laid on the floor in a temper tantrum. The dad tried all kinds of coaxing, commanding, pleading and other tactics to get the son to go into his class without all the angst.
The next day, the dad reached into his pocket and gave his son a dollar bill. The son took the dollar and immediately went into the classroom without a complaint.
We may laugh at such an incident, but I am sure this dad was angry at himself for not thinking about money earlier, because it got results. So, was this a bribe? Was it the best approach to get the young child to go to class?
Parents and caregivers regularly experience tough moments as they strive to motivate children through a growth phase, an adventure, a new activity or relationship, or a change in behavior.
Coerce or motivate: the difference is key
Let’s try to differentiate between a bribe and an incentive or reward.
A bribe usually involves an attempt to coerce a child to do something he or she would not ordinarily do. Thererfore, bribery is manipulation, a way of overpowering through trickery.
In Without Spanking or Spoiling, Elizabeth Crary differentiates between short-term, intermediate and long-term rewards. She states that a short-term reward is a bribe because it is used to stop the negative behavior that has just happened.
Consequently, to have the child continue the desired behavior, parents need to continue to provide this short-term reward. An increase in desirable behavior is not guaranteed just because the undesirable behavior is stopped temporarily.
If two children were bickering with each other and the parent offered to give them money if they would stop bickering, this would be a bribe. In fact, this type of bribe is ineffective because it only stops the behavior temporarily. In fact, there is an incentive to misbehave again in order to get more money.
What, then, is a reward?
On the other hand, a reward is a token of appreciation. It concretely acknowledges and reinforces an accomplishment. For instance, when a child works diligently and completes a science project, taking him or her for ice cream would be a reward.
An incentive helps a child make an effort to behave in a certain way. It encourages and supports rather than coerces. It may also give the child permission to try.
Use an incentive only when the behavior is ultimately beneficial to the child—not because it benefits the parent. For example, when a child is struggling to clean his room, a parent may offer to play football with him when the task is done.
Examine your motive
It isn’t always easy to differentiate between bribes, incentives and rewards because it is often about the parent’s underlying motives and the messages the child receives.
Remember, an incentive encourages desired behaviors while a bribe attempts to trick or manipulate. Bribes are not recommended. Bribes teach children to look for rewards to stop them from doing something. Incentives reinforce desired behaviors.
Parents and caregivers should develop a healthy discipline pattern that uses rewards and incentives. Rewards and incentives are far more effective and contribute to long-lasting discipline.
Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Some information taken from Preventing Violence through Effective Discipline, 2006, Diane Wagenhals. Licensed Materials. All rights reserved.