Is a gift for good behavior Reward or bribery?
Q. I sometimes give my children a gift for good behavior – for example, buying them a new toy for a great report card. To me, this is a much better approach than just meting out punishment for negative behavior. My mother tells me that this is bribery – I say it’s a reward. Who’s right?
A. Our local library ran summer reading programs for grade-school children and I registered our children as soon as school got out. As books were completed we returned to the library for rewards like stickers and bookmarks. Were my children being bribed into keeping up their reading skills over the summer? Or were they rewards for positive educational behavior?
What is the difference between bribery and a reward?
In some ways, it’s all about the timing. When you offer someone a bribe, you give them something they want to make them do something you want. If I handed my child an ice cream cone and then said, “Now, go read a book” that would be a bribe. The summer reading program that my children participated in was an incentive program. Read a book and earn a bookmark as a reward. The difference is that the desired behavior has to be accomplished before the reward is given.
Look for positive behaviors that are the opposite of the negative behaviors.
If you punish the negative behaviors that still doesn’t tell children what you want them to do. Finding a positive behavior to reward that will prevent the negative behavior from occurring in the first place is more effective. Notice when he puts away toys the first time you ask and give him a big smile saying, “Great job!” Catch a preschooler being thoughtful to a toddler sibling and see if she wants to pick out a story for you to read. Remember that rewards don’t have to be material possessions!
If something is intrinsically motivating to your child, then you don’t need a reward!
Think about the experiences that you enjoy just for the sake of the activity itself. God has blessed your child with unique talents and interests; and blessed them with a joy in those activities that is its own reward. In fact, that joy is the best reward. Let these activities develop without the outside influence of rewards. It can take away some of the enjoyment if the outside world regulates and reinforces interests that simply bring us joy!
It may seem that all your children should be on the same reward system in order to be fair. But they might have different intrinsic interests and need a different incentive system. See if there are reasons to tailor your approach based on your child’s interests.