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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