Rewards vs Bribes

This will be a quickie because, well, I am swamped with work and my son has croup/not croup but an evil uncle of croup that showed up one night out of nowhere and then disappeared and is now just a yucky cough. Oh and my 5 year old believes now is the time, after never waking up at night to use the bathroom, that she must get up nightly and last night, twice, to pee and she must wake me each time to do this so, needless to say, I am exhausted. *Ignore the run on sentences. They are a specialty of mine.

Often, when I work with children in my practice, I talk with parents about behavior modification. Research shows that using rewards and positive reinforcement is a more useful technique than consequences or punishments (which we want to avoid but I’ll write about that later).

Parents often tell me that they shouldn’t have to bribe their children to do things they should be doing. Bribe? Who said bribe? Rewards are not the same as bribes, although, in my real Mom life, a bribe can be very effective when I am absolutely desperate. Let’s be real, our plans for parenting don’t work sometimes and sometimes we need to dig deep to get something done and voila, a bribe is offered. And, by the way, children do need rewards to do the things we ask and expect of them. Their job is to do well in school and to be kind and helpful and just like we get rewarded with money or praise for the jobs we do, they need this as well.

Okay, back on track… A bribe, as I see and teach it, comes from a desperate place. It’s usually associated with wanting to stop a negative behavior without having a real system to stop that behavior. Your child might be throwing a tantrum and 15 minutes into it you’ve hit your limit and have tried everything else and then you might say “If you stop throwing your fit, you can have this cookie.” Makes zero sense. A child definitely learns that if they don’t stop throwing their fit, there is a cookie at the end of it and instead of it strengthening a positive behavior, it strengthens a negative behavior (the tantrum).

A reward is planned. It is thoughtful and it is used to strengthen a desired (positive) behavior. In our house, both our children have issues with bedtime and wakeup. Our daughter has been throwing fits before bedtime and our son loves to wake up and be noisy before his green light goes on (we use an OK to Wake clock). We started a reward system that targets these behaviors. They earn a star for each bedtime/wakeup that they follow the VERY CLEAR expectations and when they earn 5 stars, they earn a reward of their choice (within limits, of course).

The IMPERFECT Mama example this week: My son has been practicing learning how to ride his bike without training wheels. He can fully do it but he isn’t super interested in it. He rides so leisurely that essentially the bike basically just stops. WE, on the other hand, are very interested in him learning this skill because that means we’ll be able to go on family bike rides and make it more than 3 blocks in 45 minutes. So, on Tuesday, I took him to the bike path near our house for some practicing. After I helped him briefly, I said “Okay, show me how you can do it all by yourself.” He did and it lasted 2 seconds before his bike stopped. Eventually, after awhile of this, I offered up 10 minutes of iPad time (which, if you have been reading my blogs, has been taken away for about a month). Boy, did he jump at this. He rode that bike with the wind blowing in his hair and with the ease of one of they serious cyclists on the bike path with their matching tight shirt and shorts.  He loved it. He was so proud and also super excited to get that screen time. Reward? Bribe? Don’t really care because it worked.

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