Nobody likes bribery. We don’t like it in our government and we don’t like it in our parenting. Bribing your kids feels icky to think about. We just want our kids to behave out of the goodness of their hearts, right? Shouldn’t they simply WANT to behave?
(Excuse me while I laugh hysterically.) I think we can agree that we need to let that idea go. Kids build appropriate behavior because they are incented to do that, in the same way that adults go to work because they are incented to do that.
There is nothing wrong with being rewarded for doing the right thing, but there is a BIG, BIG difference between reinforcement and bribery.
Simply, reinforcement is great and valuable and necessary if you want to help grow your kids into decent humans. Bribing your kids, on the other hand, will do the opposite. Bribery breaks down behavior, subverts your parenting efforts, and undermines the very thing you are trying to do.
So, it’s important to know the difference between bribery and reinforcement because they are dressed up in the same clothes, but they are very different characters. It’s your job to spot the fake.
So, what does bribing your kids look like?
Bribery is the delivery of something powerful, like money, to encourage someone to behave a certain way or engage in a certain task. Bribing your kids can present itself in many forms. It’s usually an act of desperation on the part of the parent.
Reinforcement, on the other hand, is when something powerful is given after a certain behavior that makes it likely that the behavior will happen again. Both bribery and reinforcement involve getting something good, but bribery happens before the desired behavior and reinforcement happens after the desired behavior. This is why bribery is so dangerous in parenting.
Because bribery happens either before the behavior or when behavior is starting to head in the wrong direction, it’s not connected with the behavior in any way, so children learn that they can get the thing that they desire without behaving a certain way.
What’s worse is that we often offer a bribe when we are feeling panicked as a parent which means that we are actually reinforcing ridiculous behavior.
The scene looks like this: your child is reaching tantrum level code red just as you reach the grocery store line with a full cart of groceries. Just as they are starting to writhe their way out of the grocery cart and you feel your face starting to get hot, you grab a box of cereal out of the cart and open it up. With a forced smile you say, “You can stuff your face with marshmallows if you will just sit down and be quiet.”
And it seems to work. Your child gets quiet and you get to pay for your groceries. Seems like a win-win, but instead you’ve just taught your little darling another way to control you. If they start to act up, they are going to get rewarded. Congratulations, you’ve just negotiated with a terrorist. Your next grocery trip is going to be even harder and your child has learned to act badly to get what they want.
Instead, flip it around. While your child is still being great, say, “great job riding in the cart, would you like a treat?”. This is reinforcement. Your child has exhibited the appropriate behavior and is being rewarded for it. Your next grocery trip will be a dream. At least, let’s hope so.
The difference between bribery and reinforcement is all about the timing. If you give a reward before the behavior you want or during behavior you don’t want, it’s a bribe and it’s not in your best interests. If you give a reward after the behavior you want to see, it’s reinforcement and it helps to build more good behavior in the future.