rewards (vs. bribes)

A psychologist challenged my use of the term "bribe"

I enjoyed your web page and the information is practical and useful for parents. One exception is the use of the term "bribe" for long term rewards or for parents using the phrase, "if you will.... I will." the dictionary defines bribery as, getting someone to do something immoral or illegal for your benefit. Rewards, short or long term are rewards. A verbal statement of the contingencies of the relationship of a behavior to a consequence (reward) is OK if parents are reasonable, consistent and credible. Keep up the fine and interesting work.



To which I cannot really disagree too much; the term is used perhaps too loosely, but my vocabulary is sadly too enfeebled to come up with a catchy alternative term for paying off kids for not misbehaving. Which is different from rewarding spontaneously good behavior after the fact, to which I have no objection whatsoever.

In the spirit of discussion, I would point out that offering another person a "reward" for not engaging in undesirable behavior is indeed a form of bribery. By this principle, we don't pay off criminals for "protection," to present an admittedly extreme illustration.

From my personal perspective, a parent should rarely if ever use this sort of contingent inducement for very small children, but I have no problem with logical rewards for children old enough to "do the math" and accept and live up to the contract. "If you keep your room picked up for a week, you can take your friend to the movies as you have requested," sounds fine to me. That is indeed a reward (or at least a logical inducement), not a bribe.

But if we are after all talking about very small children with extremely short time horizons, I find in practice with parents that they often are reduced to offering rewards for good behavior that are quite inappropriate,

  • from the proportionality standpoint (too much reward for too little behavior)
  • from the aspect of inappropriately delayed rewards ("If you will pick up your room today I will give you a toy next weekend!"), or
  • rewards that make no real impression on the child ("If you pee-pee in the potty, I will give you a dollar." Or the proverbial stickers that most kids get very bored with in a hurry.)

Another fundamental problem I see with this deal-making is that the control of the situation immediately shifts to the child. The implication is that the child is now authorized to choose to behave properly or not; if he does the desired behavior, he gets a prize, true, but ultimately he is in charge. This to me is at least not healthy. If he chooses to not take the prize, that is supposed to be his consequence. But he is still urinating on the living room floor, or throwing tantrums, or whatever. What are the parents to do now? Up the reward ante? Spank?

I know I am actually in basic agreement with Dr. R. He is talking about older children, and I am chiefly concerned in my practice with the youngest ones. Rewards as he describes them for older children are indeed not bribes; they are just rewards. My personal feeling is that rewards should be very few; but blessings many. I always encourage parents to give the reward as part of a much larger program of noticing and encouraging good behavior, and giving logical and proportionate consequences for slipups, which are noted, corrected and then not dwelled upon. Contract style or contingent rewards are fine for older children who can understand and enter into a bargain, but these should in general still be avoided as a parenting style or theme, especially for younger children.

Night, Night! Dr. Hull's Common Sense Sleep Solutions© Copyright© Site Information/Disclaimer