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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Budget Lesson, Part 1

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Over the next few weeks, I will be going over my budget in detail.

The first section is income, but that’s straightforward.  A line for each income source, bi-weekly, monthly and annual totals.  Simple.

Before we start, a word on the organization.  There are five columns:

  • Category – This is the description of the line item.
  • Cost – How much do you pay for this item?
  • Time – What is the frequency of the payment?  Valid values are ‘m’, ‘q’, ‘y’, ‘w’ for ‘Monthly’, ‘Quarterly’, ‘Yearly’ and ‘Weekly’.
  • Monthly – Cost and Time are combined to calculate the monthly expense, to make it possibly to budget.  If this is $100, I need to set aside a C-Note each and every month to make the payment when it comes due.
  • Yearly – This column is mostly informative.  It’s helpful to see this in comparison to my annual pay.

The first section I am actually going to address is discretionary spending.

  • Groceries/Dining    $475.00 – We don’t budget heavily for groceries, which would be a surprise if you saw me.  At the smallest I have ever been, fit, I was never small.  We shop smart, buy in bulk when it makes sense, and rarely eat out.  We also keep cooked rice and beans in containers in the refrigerator as a cheap and healthy way to stretch almost everything we eat.
  • Discretionary    $250.00 – This gets used for household items, like toilet paper and soap.  It also get used for the odd book or movie, or to cover the gaps between the other categories and reality.
  • Baby stuff    $60.00 – We have two children in diapers.  ‘Nuff said.  This category does get progressively smaller as the baby items are outgrown and the children get potty-trained.
  • Gas/oil    $200.00 – Gas and auto-maintenance.  This is actually higher than monthly costs, allowing us to set some aside for larger maintenance issues.
  • Clothes    $15.00 – All of our dressers are overflowing, so this is strictly replacement cost for the time being.  Our kids wear a lot of hand-me-downs.
  • Blow Money    $50.00 – Occasionally, habitual shoppers need to shop.  If they don’t do it on-budget, they will do it off-budget and kill the whole idea.

Initially, we used a “virtual envelope” system.  We had a spreadsheet and every time something was spent in this category, we entered the amount and stopped when the category was spent.   Didn’t work.  We are going on a pure, cash-only system as of the first of the year.  No money, no spendy.

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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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Babies Are Expensive

From the comments here.  The discussion is on how much it costs to have a baby.  Edited for clarity.

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Actual birthing costs vary. We’ve had three kids over ten years and birthing costs have varied from $250 out of pocket to $8500.   Our highest and lowest price births were 20 months apart. The highest price birth involved induced labor with an epidural. For the lowest out-of-pocket price, I added my wife to my policy before the birth, so she was double-covered. If one of your policies is less than ideal and there are multiple policies available, I recommend doing this. It saved us thousands.  All told, If things go well, you could slide for as little as $1500 total.

For the highest price birth, we threw ourselves on the mercy of the finance department. They have a charity fund to pay the bills of the less fortunate. We qualified…barely.  If you have a medical bill you can’t afford, ask if there is a grant or donation you can apply for.  Always ask if there is some way the bill could be lowered.

Breast-feeding beats the heck out of formula, financially, but breast-feeding doesn’t always work. Ignore the boob-nazis who insist you are slowly killing your kid by using formula. I’ve got 3 kids, and each had different feeding issues.

Baby formula runs $19 for a big container at Sam’s Club, or a large percentage of your soul at most other big box stores.  Formula alone will pay for your membership in under a month. For a big eater, that’s $20-30 per week. For a normal eater, 2-3 weeks. For planning purposes, assume $100/month in formula costs for the first six months, when food starts coming into play heavily. After that, the formula expense goes down, but not away for at least 6 more months.

Diapers are painful. Not just the smell–though that hurts, too, sometimes–but the expense. I currently have 2 in diapers; one is potty-training. Our monthly costs for diapers, now, are about $75. It was easily twice that when they were younger. Figure at least $100 per month in diapers.  Unless your baby has irritation problems, go with cheap diapers. Leak-guard is a joke.   If you are relying on leak-guard to keep the contents inside the diaper, you aren’t changing your baby often enough.

I couldn’t begin to guess at how much you’ll spend on baby clothes.  I have never bought clothes for our kids. Whatever didn’t come free from friends and family walked into the house of it’s own volition, following my wife home from the store.

Toys are an almost purely voluntary expense. You’ll get as much as the kids needs free, as presents. You’ll go overboard and give the kids 10 times that, without realizing it. Don’t. For the first four to five months, its fingers and toes will be entertaining enough. After that, if there are more than about ten toys, it’s too many; the kid will never get attached to any of them. Keep it small. It’s better for the kids and the budget.  Little kids prefer boxes to toys, anyway.   Give the kid a shoebox instead of a Leapfrog.  Really.

Portraits suck, too. If you have to get them done professionally, get a membership that covers sitting fees, and use coupons. I recommend JC Penney’s. Using judicious coupons and the membership, we get portraits for under $20.

Baby food is probably cheaper to make in a food processor, but you can’t beat the convenience of the little jars. If you watch sales, you can stock up affordably. Mix every meal with some rice or oatmeal mush to stretch it, without making it unhealthy. Depending on your kids, and how much you listen to the “experts”, this is a nonexistent expense before six months. Our kids started eating baby food in their second months, at least a little bit.

Babies are expensive. Don’t doubt that for a second, but ignore the polled averages when it comes to expense.  Hand-me-downs, thrift stores, and good sales cut the expense a lot.

How do you save money and value with a baby in the house?

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