by W. Douglas Tynan, Ph.D.
Frequently as part of my practice I will recommend that a parent set up a reward system at home to increase desirable behaviors such as cleaning up a room, doing homework or getting ready for school on time. Inevitably, a parent will tell me that they do not want to bribe their child to do the right thing, and will argue about using a reward.
It doesn’t help me make my point that major magazines on parenting run cover stories about whether you should ‘bribe’ your child. And famous media mental health types often weigh in on the issue, usually against the ‘bribe’.
But do we ever bribe kids? A bribe is defined in the dictionary as paying someone to do something illegal or immoral. People attempt to bribe government officials to bypass rules, or gamblers try to bribe coaches and players to throw games. We never bribe kids to do bad things. So how did this word get associated with trying to modify a child’s behavior?
When I discuss the “B” word with parents, what I am usually told is that either their child will then want a bribe for every little behavior, or their child will act up without a bribe. In these situations, it turns out we aren’t talking about bribes (or incentives) at all. I’ve realized we’re discussing the child extorting the parent.
What’s the difference between a bribe (aka an incentive) and extortion? It’s all about power. What parents call bribes often mean control of the situation has moved from the parent being in charge to the child being in charge. At those times, the parent pays off the child with a reward to prevent the child from doing something bad or undesirable. You can see it in the mall, the desperate mom or dad promising a reward if only the child will not cause such a scene. That is extortion, defined as demanding payment to prevent something terrible from happening. You’ll know in your gut which it is: If it feels wrong to you, you are not bribing or rewarding -- you are being extorted.
The difference is who sets the rules and who is in control. If the parent discusses with the child, offers a reward if the child does what is asked of them and then pays off, the parent is in charge and it is truly a reward. The child will likely behave well in the future. Incentives require advance planning. If you go to the mall and prior to entry you tell your child what to expect, how many stores you will visit and what they must do to earn their reward (a toy, a ride on the merry-go-round, a little treat after lunch), that is a good way to manage a potentially difficult situation. Thinking ahead is crucial. If you don’t say anything and only when the child starts to fuss do you offer an incentive, that’s extortion. In that situation the child has learned how to control you.
The bottom line is that rewards are a very useful way to help children do things they find difficult. We never actually bribe kids, and we should watch out to make sure they are not extorting us.
What types of rewards and incentives have helped your child develop healthy habits or good behaviors?
W. Douglas Tynan, Ph.D., joined Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in 2001 as a clinical psychologist and currently serves as chief psychologist with Nemours Health and Prevention Services, and associate professor of pediatrics at Jefferson Medical College