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Bribery and rewards ... Aren't they the same?

Rewards and bribes. Two parenting techniques that are often used synonymously but they have very different purposes and results. One can improve behavior and one can actually make it worse.

Let’s start with some basic definitions:

A bribe comes BEFORE a desired behavior is achieved.

Example: You want your child to behave a certain way (be quiet while you take an important work call, behave at the dentist, clean up their room, do their homework, etc) and you give them a toy (or something else they want) before the desired behavior is achieved.

A reward comes AFTER a desired behavior is achieved.

Example: You want your child to behave a certain way and you give them something they want after the desired behavior is achieved.

Now that you’ve read those basic definitions, have you guessed which one is more desirable and effective?

If you guessed rewards, you’re right!

Focusing on the positive

Rewarding positive behavior is one of the basic foundations of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), the gold standard for autism treatment. But the basic principles can be applied to improving any child’s behavior.

There are many reasons why the reward strategy is so successful. Rewards focus on positive behavior versus giving attention to negative behavior.

Rewards can come in many forms - some as simple as clapping or verbalizing what a good job they did on something to more tangible things like stickers, small toys or experiences like going to the park, playing outside or another one of their desired activities.

The key to implementing this kind of strategy is being proactive. Identify the ways your child is motivated and then communicate the desired behavior and resulting reward to them ahead of time.

If you’re rewarded for doing something positive, then you’re that much more likely do it again.

Putting yourself in control of the situation

Generally, bribery occurs in a stressful situation when your child is already exhibiting undesirable behavior. It happens fast and before you know it, you’ve offered (in desperation) your child something you had no previous intention of offering. And just like that, your child is in control of the situation and you’ve set a precedent for how your child will expect you to react the next time they misbehave.

Instead, it’s much better to ignore the negative behavior. When that happens, eventually children will see that their whining, complaining and yelling isn’t getting them what they want and they’ll stop.

It’s important to note that if you’ve gotten yourself into a pattern of bribery, ignoring their behavior will make them escalate for a while until they realize they’re no longer in control.

Rewards are all around us

For some reason, rewards can have a negative connotation but our world is filled with them: a raise at work for a job well done, a cash reward for finding or returning something that’s lost or the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you do something nice for someone else.

So, if your child needs some extra incentive to do certain tasks, that’s OK.

Here are some easy ways to remember the differences between the two:

  • Rewards are never given in the moment of misbehavior. That’s a bribe.

  • If a child asks, “What will you give me if I…” that’s a bribe.

  • Rewards are never negotiated.

  • Rewards feel good to give a child.

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