Bribes vs Rewards

Rewarding good behavior

Rewarding good behavior

What’s the difference between a bribe and a reward? It’s a question that has been heavily on my mind lately. As a father of three–1, 3 and 10–motivating children occupies a lot of my thoughts. Is it possible to motivate a child and reward good behavior without resorting to a bribe?

First, let’s look at the definitions:

bribe n.
1. Something, such as money or a favor, offered or given to a person in a position of trust to influence that person’s views or conduct.
2. Something serving to influence or persuade.

re·ward n.
1. Something given or received in recompense for worthy behavior or in retribution for evil acts.
2. Money offered or given for some special service, such as the return of a lost article or the capture of a criminal.
3. A satisfying return or result; profit.
4. Psychology: The return for performance of a desired behavior; positive reinforcement.

In my mind, a reward is given either as a goal for planned activity or a surprise for good behavior.  When used for surprises, it should never be common enough to be expected.  If a child is only behaving because she is expecting a reward, it is bribed behavior.  She should always be surprised to get the reward.

Using a reward for goal setting is no different than collecting a paycheck.  Is my company bribing me to do the work I do every day?  They plan to reward or compensate me for the work I plan to do for them.  While that my be blurring the line between compensation and rewards, it is valid.  My future paycheck is the motivation for my current work.

Bribes, on the other hand, are reward for bad behavior.   If my three-year-old is throwing a tantrum in the grocery store and I promise her candy to stop, I have just taught her that the “reward” for a public tantrum is candy.   This is reinforcing negative behavior, which will only escalate in the future.   If a temper tantrum earns a candy bar, what will she get for hitting Mommy with a frying pan?

The line is further blurred by preemptive bribes.  If I tell my children there will be candy when we get home if they behave in the store, it’s still a bribe.   Promising dessert if my son cleans his room is a bribe.

So what is the difference?

Bribes reward negative behavior. Whether that is actual behavior or anticipated behavior, bribes provide a reward for it.  If you use a treat to end or preempt bad actions, you are bribing your child.

Rewards celebrate positive behavior. A promised treat for going beyond expectations or a surprise for excellent behavior is a reward.  It should never become common, or the child will discover that withholding the positive behavior will generate promises of larger rewards.  The goal is to reinforce the good to encourage positive behaviors even when there is no likelihood for reward.

For example, my son’s school is part of a reading contest.   Over a two month period, if the students read 500 pages outside of school, they will get tickets to a basketball game.  If they are in the top three for pages read, they will get personalize jerseys and on-court recognition.  My son did the math and was reading enough to surpass the 500 page goal, but not enough to get into the top three.   I offered a prize  if he made it to 2500 pages.  In my opinion, that’s a reward.  He was already going beyond the requirement.  I have provided motivation to push himself beyond what he thinks he can do. That’s positive reinforcement of good behavior.

On the other hand, when my eight-year-old was refusing to eat dinner, we offered a cookie for dessert if she ate well.    That’s reinforcing negative behavior by giving a reward for misbehaving. A bribe.

Rewards are positive responses to positive behavior to motivate future good behavior.   Bribes are rewards for negative behavior, real or anticipated, that only serve to encourage more bad behavior in the future.

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    1. Thanks for the reminder that bribes don’t work. As the father of 2 boys I need to be a rewarder. No easy task.

    2. It’s a fine line to walk. It’s easy to slip over to the dark side and bribe kids.

    3. I almost agree. My one concern (this may depend on age) is that we may be teaching our children that they should expect someone to reward them to do well or do what’s right rather than they should do what’s right because it’s right and the mere consequences of making right choices are rewards in and of themselves.

    4. I agree completely. I try not to offer rewards reliably. My goal is that they are always a happy surprise.

    5. I’m still quite confused. I have a 9yo and feel that we are going down the slippery slope of bribes and expected rewards – however we need some type of behavioral modification plan with a “prize” at the end for positive behavior.
      I feel he is always in the “what is in it for me” mode. I’ll do what you want me to do, but first tell me what it is worth to you. Definitely not the way I want to raise him.
      Oh how to help him be more internally motivated than external?????

    6. Lately, my son has come up “If I do good at a wrestling meet, can I have some money?”

      The answer is always “No” to that. Specifically, “No, but you can have the feeling of being proud of what you’ve done” followed by a small speech about that being the only reward that really matter.

    7. Wendy Richards says:

      This is fine for normally developing children, but when dealing with special needs children, they need concrete rewards in order to perform actions and learn new skills. They need to know what those rewards are in order to perform.

      • That is an incredibly good point that I had completely overlooked. I have some, but not much, experience with special needs kids, and that angle hadn’t occurred to me. Thank you for bringing it up.

    8. I think that the wrong question is being asked because a bribe is pre-tense whereas a reward is post. The real question should be “is there a difference between a bribe and incentive” a bribe carries a negative connotation and in self seeking. On the other hand we can incentivize our children so that they know that hard work will will eventually pay off.


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