Why bribing your child doesn't work.

Snapshots of life at home.
March 26 2010 7:17 AM

If You're Good, I'll Buy You a Toy

The difference between bribing your child and rewarding your child.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The very idea of rewarding children for good behavior rubs a lot of adults the wrong way. Even when they accept that positive reinforcement changes behavior a lot more effectively than punishment does, they still object to using rewards in general and specifically for behaviors one ought to expect as a matter of course from a child. They just can't bring themselves to praise a 7-year-old and give her points on a point chart or a little prize because she didn't throw a tantrum in the supermarket.

Rewarding the desired behavior is just one element of positive reinforcement, which a deep body of reputable research over several decades has established as the most effective way to change behavior. But many parents (and teachers and babysitters) reasonably object that giving a child a reward amounts to bribing him. He's just doing it for the reward, they say. They want him to behave for other, better reasons: because he should, because it's his responsibility, because they say so.

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The families who come to Alan's Yale Parenting Center often resist using rewards, which leads to some typical exchanges with the trainers there.

Objection: I don't want to reward behavior the child should do anyway because it's part of his normal responsibilities.

That's a reasonable position. However, if the child is not doing the behavior now, or not often enough, or not without a struggle, it seems practical to ask: "What's the best way to jump-start it?" Reprimands and threats don't work very well, and they often have side effects that increase noncompliance and decrease the likelihood that the child will do what's requested. Typically, reprimands and threats function just like bribes. They might get the desired behavior for the moment, but the child won't continue the behavior beyond just responding to the threat. That is, the behavior will not be locked in as a habit or as an expression of a general characteristic we wish to develop, such as honesty, kindness, or generosity.

Objection: If we use rewards to get the behavior, the behavior will stop once we stop giving the rewards, which means we'd have to give the rewards forever to keep the behavior going.

That's a nightmarish scenario—the kind of perpetual bind that people taking certain medications, like those that lower blood cholesterol, can find themselves in. Will you have to give your child two stickers on her point chart for using the potty before she steps into the limo on the way to the senior prom? Fortunately, that's not how it works when you use rewards in an effective way to improve behavior.

You praise your child at the toddler stage for using the potty and for saying "thank you" and for not using the tablecloth to wipe her nose, but by the prom-going stage (and, ideally, by about 14 years before it), she has these habits down cold and no longer needs to be reinforced in them. The relatively brief period during which you praised these behaviors has been over for a very long time. Whether a behavior is maintained and becomes a habit has a lot to do with how the rewards are given. The key is not in the rewards themselves but in a consistent way of getting the child to carry out the behavior and praising or otherwise rewarding it when it occurs. (Don't forget: Attention and praise are rewards and are, in fact, your most reliable rewards.) Unsystematic one-shot incentives will lead to dependence on the reward, and the behavior is indeed likely to stop once you stop rewarding it.

From the perspective of changing behavior, that's the crucial difference between a bribe and a reward. A bribe, even in those cases when it's ongoing over a long period of time, is not part of a systematic effort to develop behavior so that it persists when the bribe is no longer offered. Even if you've paid the same guy in City Hall to fix tickets for you for years, if you stop paying him, he'll stop fixing your tickets. A reward, by contrast, when used properly in combination with antecedents (what you say and do to prompt the desired behavior) and shaping (rewarding partial success in order to build up the behavior) and other elements of a systematic effort to lastingly change behavior, is a temporary measure that can be phased out once the behavior is established. The behavior continues without the reward, just as a finished building continues to stand after the scaffolding comes down.

Objection: Rewards will ruin my child's inner motivation to do things for their own sake.

No, they won't, not if used properly. While an improvised, one-shot "do this for that" will not develop the behavior you want and may undermine intrinsic motivation, rewards used to systematically develop behavior can lock in habits that become independent of any rewards. An example many adults can relate to in their own behavior is exercise. At first, it may be a struggle to exercise regularly. When it's time to work out, you feel a strong urge to sleep in or quietly watch reruns of Cheers until the moment passes, and you may not get to the gym at all unless your significant other intervenes to offer a timely reward (you're an adult; use your imagination). But repetition of the behavior locks in the habit, and the behavior then becomes its own reward. You might even become a fanatic who gets mildly disturbed or seriously irked if illness, work, or some other annoying obstruction prevents you from getting to the gym on a given day. There's no magic in the rewards themselves. They are merely aids to get the behavior to occur repeatedly, so that the habit can develop.

Objection: Rewards are unnatural consequences. When my child grows up, she'll see that the world is not waiting around to hand out praise or video games for doing what she's supposed to do.

A fair point, but one might quibble with the idea that the home should be exactly like other situations the child will experience when she grows up. The home is a unique place where a child develops resilience, competences, attachments, and support in ways that have little to do with later experiences except that they prepare the child to weather and learn from life. Also, the proper way to give rewards has some other redeeming features, of which more in a moment.

Objection: Rewards don't work. I tried one of those point charts, and it didn't change a thing.

A point chart—if you even need one at all—can work very well. And yet, almost all families that come to the Yale Parenting Center have tried point charts and the rewards that go with them. Those schemes haven't worked, obviously, or they wouldn't be coming to the center to address their conduct problems. But that doesn't justify concluding that reward programs don't work, period. The equivalent would be driving in neutral with the emergency brake on and saying that cars don't work. There is research about how to make such programs work, and that same research explains why so many of them fail:

1.Winging it. Some parents improvise makeshift rewards on the spot and fire them from the hip at the moving target of the child's conduct. "Billy, go get my purse from upstairs and you can have 5 minutes more of TV"... "Billy, we're going to the store; if you get your shoes and coat right away, you can have a snack when we get back"... "Billy, if you go keep your sister company for a few minutes, we can make your bedtime a few minutes later." These parents are winging it, throwing together rewards on the fly to encourage a shifting range of behaviors. This approach confirms the wisdom of every objection we've just considered above. It will not develop intrinsic motivation or habits, or at least habits parents want. The child may do each desired behavior, but only for the specific reward at that moment—that is, for the bribe. Once the reward stops, each of the behaviors is likely to stop as well.