Are You Rewarding or Bribing Your Child?

Child in shopping cart with Mom beside her
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I can picture the scene in my mind like it was yesterday. Chubby legs kicking. Back stiffened straight. Child wailing, “No, Mommy! No get into the cart!”

Exasperated, I wondered if this trip to the grocery store was in vain. However, I needed to get food for dinner, and this was my only opportunity. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that a lollipop was buried in the bottom of my purse.

Holding my daughter on my hip with one arm, I frantically searched until I found it. Then I said, “If you get in the cart, you can have this lollipop.”

Instantly she complied. I won the battle, but I knew this was a losing strategy. While rewards and bribes are sometimes seen as being interchangeable, they teach opposite lessons to our children.

What’s the difference?

A bribe is offered as a means to cajole or influence a child. Typically, it is given in the midst of a tantrum or other bad behavior. Deanna McClannahan, a licensed professional counselor at Focus on the Family, advises against doing this. "Bribing is giving a child a reward for unwanted behavior,” she warns. “In turn this teaches the child that if he screams for 20 minutes, he will get a piece of candy. Next time he wants something, you have taught him to scream.”

In contrast, a reward is something that is given in recognition of a child’s effort, service or achievement. It is parent initiated and directed, and given in recognition of a child's effort. "Giving a child a reward for positive behavior reinforces what you want your child to do more of,” McClannahan says. She emphasizes that if a child is rewarded for positive behavior, he will be better motivated to repeat it.

As parents, we want our 2-year-old to feel a bit of our delight when she helps clean up all the toys or behaves appropriately at the store. A small, appropriate reward serves to encourage a child’s future obedience.

How to reward

Children under 3 live in the moment. McClannahan says, “Younger children do not have the ability to connect long-term rewards and consequences to current actions.” For this reason, McClannahan encourages parents of young children to reward as soon as possible. “It can be appropriate to wait until you get home,” she says, “but not OK to wait until the end of the week.”

Rather than just saying, "You did a good job," let them know exactly what they did well: "I like how you remembered to pick up your dolls and put them in the toy box." This type of praise reinforces the behavior you want to encourage and gives your children further instruction about your expectations.

For young children, rewards can be simple. A high-five or compliment (positive attention) is sometimes all the reward a child needs. But reading a favorite book together or giving him a small treat can also serve as a positive incentive.

A lesson learned

Two children at the grocery store may each receive a lollipop. However the method in which they were given their treat has the power to teach two vastly different lessons. If it is given as a bribe, it will encourage poor behavior. The child learns that if she fusses, screams or pouts, she will be pacified with something that brings her pleasure.

On the other hand, giving the lollipop as a reward after good behavior teaches our children the joy of doing what is right. This encourages them to continue making good decisions, which is what good parenting does — trains a child in the way he should go.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Familya marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2015 by Melissa Kruger. Used by permission.

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