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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The Secret to Fearless Change

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door

You never will get where you’re going
If you never get up on your feet
Come on, there’s a good tail wind blowing
A fast walking man is hard to beat

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door

If you want to change your direction
If your time of life is at hand
Well don’t be the rule be the exception
A good way to start is to stand

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door

If I want to change the reflection
I see in the mirror each morn
You mean that it’s just my election
To vote for a chance to be reborn

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Christmas for the Destitute

First, my disclaimer:  I’m not destitute.

However, I’m trying to spend Christmas acting like I am a pauper.

Why, with small children and beautiful-and-more-than-deserving wife, would I want to deprive my family of a bountiful holiday?

Before we get into the reasons for being a horrible grinch bent on depriving my children of their god-given right to rampant consumerism, let’s look at the Philosophy of Destitution.

The primary reason to pull back and tone it down is basic frugality.  Excessive anything is not frugal. I am training my children–and for that matter, my wife and my self–in the finer arts of personal responsibility and frugality.   Accumulating debt for a fleeting holiday is insane.  If we can’t afford to buy it, we certainly can’t afford to give it.   Anything else would be setting a bad example and children learn best by example.

Another piece of the Philosophy of Destitution(when I read this word, I hear a deep, booming voice in my head, like a 30s radio superhero voiceover)  is “green”.    I consider myself a conservationalist rather than an environmentalist, so don’t read too much into that color.  I try to be responsible, instead of destructive and I try to avoid being wasteful.  Toys that won’t be played with are wasteful. A garbage can full of packaging for those same toys costs money.  It is much cheaper to avoid the landfill here.

Back to “Why”. Why would I be willing to deprive my family?

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Naked Money

In our house, the bills don’t get hidden. I’ve never tried to hide our finances from our children. I believe doing that is part of the reason I reached adulthood with no brakes. Growing up, finances were almost entirely invisible.  Now, I believe is financial transparency.

Now, as a father, I balance the checkbook and pay bills on the laptop in the living room where my children can see me. They see the stack of bills and they watch me balance the checkbook. We discuss how much things cost and how we can cut expenses while the bills are being paid.  Even the toddlers know Daddy is doing something important.

My ten-year-old son knows what sales tax is and where to find it on a receipt. He knows what property taxes are and how much they are in our neighborhood. He knows roughly what percentage of a paycheck gets withheld. I work to make my son financially aware. My girls are too young to understand the concept of money, but they will be receiving a thorough financial education as soon as they are able to grasp the concepts.

The hard part is explaining to my son how we screwed up our finances. I’ve shown him my paycheck and discussed our debt. I have explained to him that we were making much less money when we accumulated our doom debt, while maintaining a higher standard of living.  Now, when we go to the store, he doesn’t even ask if he can borrow money until we get to his bank account.  He has learned to dislike debt in almost all forms.  I’m fairly proud that my kid voluntarily practices delayed gratification.

What he doesn’t quite grasp is the idea of living within your means, even if your means are limited.   “But, Dad, what if you don’t have much money?  Then you have to borrow money for nice things, right?”  I’m not sure how to break him of that.  Delayed gratification is an understandable concept for him, but the difference between wants and needs seems to be missing.   Any ideas?

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