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What is the difference between rewarding and bribing your child in order to enhance positive behaviour?

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What are your thoughts on rewarding children?

“I honestly think using rewards to change or enhance behaviours in children is an excellent and positive tool.

We often fall into the habit of focussing only on the misbehaviours of our children, and then punishing them for that; either by taking away privileges, spanking, yelling, threatening and the problem here is that this negative focus on the child, very seldom has a long term effect in changing the behaviour.

The child might stop the behaviour for the moment, you might feel that it’s working, but in actual fact it won’t help you turn a positive behaviour into a habit, as your focus is more on what not to do than on what to do.

How do I know if what I’m doing, as a parent, is no longer rewarding – but bribing?

Ok, now this is a very common question; and understandably so!
In short – a bribe gets your child to change his behaviour on the spot. Rewards help change behaviour over time and in the long run, and also teaches your child to work for something in a positive way.

You’re in the shop, and your son starts throwing a tantrum. You try giving him “the look”, you start threatening, and then you say something like; if you stop this behaviour right now, I will buy you a toy in the shop before we leave”. This is a bribe and the effects are negative.

Firstly the child quickly learns if I want something from the shop, all I need to do is to start acting up, and mom will buy me something to keep me quiet. So you are actually reinforcing the negative behaviour – you are teaching your child to misbehave in public; as there is a very nice pay off to it. You are teaching your child to manipulate you into buying him something. The focus is on the negative again and it has no influence on changing behavior for the better.

Rewarding on the other hand, as I said; focuses on the positive. Is very clearly outlined set of expectations and helps change positive behaviours into habits. It is premeditated.

So in other words, you have to go and sit and identify some specific positive behaviour that you would like to focus on. Start with one or two and once they are firmly set habits, move on to the following ones.

Using our example again of going to the store; The positive behaviour that you would like to encourage is sitting still inside the shopping cart, while you do your shopping.

You have several ways of rewarding this behaviour:
Positive feedback and attention is one way. Constantly expressing with your tone of voice, eye contact, affection, words – look how big you are, sitting so still in the shopping cart. Positive feedback, positive facial expression and attention is a form of reward, especially if they are still young.

When they are a little older, you can sit together and make a list of rewards. For example watching tv for 10 minutes longer than usual, or having a friend come over Friday afternoon, or a special gift – anything that your child would like to put on the list.

You can make a reward chart and every time the child does behave positively, he gets an extra star on the chart until he gets to 10 and then he can choose one of his rewards.

The big difference here is a bribe gets the child to stop negative behaviour for the moment, is a very impulsive kind of thing and does not lead to positive behavioral changes in the long run. Rewards are well thought out; in advance and clearly communicated to the child, as a positive reinforcement to enhance the positive behaviour.

At what age should I stop giving rewards?

In my opinion it’s not really an age thing. Bribes can go on forever, because the child learnt that it’s a manipulation tool. But rewards, if done correctly, turn positive behaviours into habits. As soon as the habit is nicely fixed, the material rewards can stop. Emotional rewards such as positive feedback and praise shouldn’t stop.

Is there another way to reinforce good behaviour other than rewards

If you want to reinforce positively and for the long run in a manner that builds trust in your relationship and that helps you bond with your child, I think rewarding is the best way. Of course you can enforce positive behaviour through threats and hidings and punishment and so forth, but it won’t have the long term beneficial positive effect that you would get from using rewarding instead.

Think of the differences in the emotional climate of your home regarding threats, punishment and so forth vs positive feedback and positive reward and focusing on the good instead of the bad.

Can you give us some examples of acceptable rewards?

There’s a misperception that rewards need to be something huge, or something monetary. It also includes the small things – it’s a look of approval while your child is doing something right, it’s acknowledging positive behaviour by saying “thank you for sitting so still” – again specifically wording the behaviour in question, it’s positive attention. Something like; a huge hug and saying I’m so proud of you for sitting still in the shopping cart today.

Rewards also include things like stars on a reward chart:, a friend coming over, a privilege being extended a little or being added to his list of privileges. So not necessarily something that is going to cost you an arm or a leg.

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