Parents in my Parents Anonymous Group often discussed bribery and rewards but many confused the two. What exactly is the difference and why does it matter?
HINT: Bribes are not planned beforehand and parents are pressured in the moment; rewards are usually planned by the parent and given afterward.
Bribery can occur when a parent feels under immediate pressure to get a child to behave well or cooperate in the moment, usually out of the home: During a shopping trip, visiting with parents’ friends or relatives, while doing parental chores and errands such as picking up laundry or visiting the post office, while on the telephone, in the car traveling and so on. Bribes often entail: Negotiating a payoff; places parent and child at odds with each other; and sometimes puts the child in charge or on equal footing as the parent. Tip to remember the difference: Bribes are bad news!
Rewards are sometimes planned in advance with or without the child’s knowledge. A reward can also be given by surprise as a ‘thank you’ or show of appreciation for good behavior. Rewards are also given after the good behavior has occurred such as in a work-for-pay arrangement.
Earmarks of Bribes and Rewards
Parent is under duress or feels pressured
Parent feels they have no choice but to give in
Parent would prefer not to give the object or privilege
Parent may feel anger or as if the child is taking advantage of them
Puts parents and children on opposing sides
Child is viewed as being in charge of the moment
Parent and child agree on object or privilege ahead of time
Discussion takes place prior to ‘work’ or behavior
Parent can surprise child with object or privilege
There is mutual respect between the parent and child
Parent and child agree on the work and payoff before either take place
Parent and child remain in their respective roles
What are the concerns over time?
Giving in to a child and bribing them with an object or privilege for good behavior may seem like it works at the time but that is guaranteed to be short term. Once the situation arises again, and it will, not only will the child act up to replay the sequence of events, they will more than likely up the ante or increase the price for peace. When the pattern is set for bribery it is very difficult to break out of that template.
Children who demand and get bribes may ultimately lose respect for the parent and that undermines a parent’s authority over time. When the child is young the payoff may be extra game time or a toy but as a teenager, the price skyrockets to much more expensive or troublesome items such as late curfews, loosened rules, adult-rated movies, and so on.
A parent once told me that when she is unsure what to do with her children, she asks herself, ‘what would Jackie do’ (WWJD). With my own children, I never used bribery because of the inherent risks involved. Only a few times did I ever use the work-for-pay or reward method when one of the girls wanted to buy something special. Example:
Seven-year-old Chelsey wanted the “Peach Pretty Barbie” in the store and asked nicely if I would get it for her. There were only a few left and I knew if I waited to buy it that there may be none left. Since Chelsey asked so nicely I rewarded her by making a deal: I would buy the doll and keep it until she had earned the entire amount of money to buy it by doing out-of-the-ordinary chores for me.
As soon as we got home I put the doll in sight but out of reach. I created a list of tasks to choose from and assigned a value to the jobs: Hang laundry 50¢, plant flowers $1.00, sweep the garage 50¢, scrub the kiddie pool $1.00, clean out the car 50¢, sort a bucket of hardware (nuts, bolts, nails, flat screws, Phillips screws) $5.00 and other unusual jobs. Chelsey began immediately by undertaking one job at a time and completing each task for approval. Earning enough money for the doll took a couple of weeks and at the end of our agreement I handed her the doll – the coveted Peach Pretty Barbie.
For me it would have been easier to just give her the doll but the value of the experience would have been lost. To me, the look of self-satisfaction on Chelsey’s face truly was, as they say, priceless. She is now 30 and still talks about how proud she was to earn that doll. I doubt the doll would have meant as much to her if I just gave her the doll. The doll she played with is pretty worn now but she has enjoyed the memory of it so much that she recently bought another, brand new Peach Pretty Barbie on ebay.
Understanding the differences between bribery and rewards can help parents make decisions for their families based on their values and principals. I am interested in readers’ thoughts on bribes and rewards; if you have questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch.