Chapter 8: Do Rewards and Bribes Really Motivate Children?
Before you get into the heart of today’s lesson, see how you did on yesterday’s Action Step of changing praise into encouragement. If you got stuck on any of them, here are some suggested answers:
- “I bet you’re proud of yourself!”
- “Wow! Look at your hair! You … (describe.) Did you do that yourself? That must have taken some fancy finger work!”
- “Your room sure looks clean! I see you … (describe). You really worked on that for a long time. That took persistence.”
- “You worked and worked and never gave up. Look at how far you came!”
- Comparisons promote resentment and do not motivate children. Whatever you want to say to one child you can say without any reference to the other. To each child, individually, describe what he/she did, any improvements, and give credit for any effort.
The important take-away from that exercise is that when you’re using encouragement, rather than praise, you will be raising your children to be internally motivated to do the right thing. As your child gets older, this becomes more important because the consequences for making unwise choices get higher. Think about how great it would be if your child could resist peer pressure to try drugs or cigarettes, because h/she was strong on the inside and had strong self-esteem. That’s the power of encouragement.
Now, for today’s lesson:
Here’s where we are in the Universal Blueprint® Problem-Solving System / PASRR Formula:
Prevent Problems from starting or worsening … with the
Prevention Toolbox: Cooperation Toolset
When I teach this section, I do a little fun exercise. If you’d like to take part virtually, watch the video called “You Can’t Make Me” (6:14 min) before you read further. In it, we brainstorm the different ways parents try to get their children to do what they want them to do. Inevitably, at the top of the list, are bribes and rewards.
Out of all the tools I’m going to share with you in this course, this is the only one I’m telling you not to use and taking the time to explain why. Of course, I’ll tell you what to do instead.
Many parents reward children’s good behavior or use bribes to entice children to cooperate. Bribes are gifts or payments which are designed to manipulate or influence others to take a particular action. Rewards give a payoff for behaving in a desirable way.
Most parents find bribes/rewards convenient and they usually work — in the short run. But long-term research shows they quickly become addictive for the child and ineffective for the parent.
Joe took the T.I.P.S. class without his wife. One day they took their two boys, Adam (7) and Billy (4), to the animal shelter to look for a new pet. His wife said to the boys, “If you are on your best behavior, we’ll stop by the store on the way home.” Joe pointed out to his wife that this was a bribe and got a dirty look from her in response.
Three hours later, they left the shelter — and Billy, an incredibly bright boy, said, “We were on very good behavior so can we go to the store?” Joe gave a look to his wife that said, “See? I told you so.” His wife gave him the finger, so he decided to let her experience the consequence of bribing the children. (To avoid getting sidetracked from this story, you can read later an article on building teamwork with inconsistent parenting partners.)
His wife went to Wal-Mart, to which the child said, “That’s not the store I want to go to. I want to go to Best Buy!” Joe could see big dollar signs in his mind.
As they entered the store, Billy asked for a new computer. Joe told him there was one at home and if he helped him make repairs he could have that one.
Billy headed to the software department and found a CAD program, which engineers use. Joe asked him, “Do you even know what this program does?” Billy calmly looked Joe in the eye and said “Duh, Dad. It’s a drawing program I can use to draw cars and houses and stuff.” Joe put a dollar cap on the purchase and Billy put it back.
Later, Billy found a different version in the bargain bin at 70% off. Billy got that and Adam got a video game. Joe thought to himself, “Man, looking at stray animals ended up costing us a couple hundred bucks! I don’t think I can afford my kids being good too often!”
In the “old school” of parenting, parents were told to use “rewards and punishment” to mold children’s behavior. We’ll address rewards here and discuss punishment in Lesson 26. You can also watch a video on behavior charts (6:41 min) or an article on how to tweak these and other “behavior modification” techniques.
When parents give psychological and material rewards to reinforce wanted behavior, long-term research shows that children learn that they should get a payoff for behaving. Then they quickly get to a point that they will only do something if there is a reward. Then the reward has to constantly increase to motivate them. It’s a financially, emotionally, and psychologically damaging cycle that’s difficult to reverse. Ask any supervisor or human resources person and they’ll tell you they see the effects in the workplace all the time, of employees who lack self-motivation and initiative.
To tell if you’re bribing or motivating a child, look at two things:
- What is your motive? If you are trying to manipulate, you are probably bribing. Ask yourself why you want the child to do this. State this value in your request to foster internal motivation.
- Who is suggesting the tradeoff? Usually, when parents suggest, “If you’ll do something for me, then I’ll do something for you,” children interpret it as a bribe. If children ask if they can have something and the parents responds with the condition under which they can have it, it is not a bribe, it teaches values such as “work before play” or “healthy food before sweets.”
Generally, “If ___, then ___.” statements tend to come off more like bribes. For example, “If you eat your peas I’ll give you some dessert.” “If you finish cleaning your room, you can play with John.”
If parents say, “When (or “As soon as …”)___ then ___,” children are less likely to misconstrue the statement as a bribe. For example, “When you have eaten your healthy food, you can have some dessert if you like.” “As soon as your room is clean, you can play with John.”
Bribes, rewards and incentives are all external motivators, which means someone or something outside the child provides the motivation. When parents foster internal motivation, children internalize the value of rules and requests and will cooperate even when no external person or thing is present to make them comply.
A more encouraging attitude is to teach children acceptable behavior, like any other skill — and view mistakes as part of the learning process. Sincere descriptions of a child’s acceptable behavior and the value of their contributions (giving a D.I.P.) will lead children to conclude for themselves that they feel good inside when they are helpful. Such internal satisfaction is a greater reward than any external compliment or payoff, which can be canceled out with criticisms or punishments. It’s also much longer-lasting.
- Examine, honestly, your motives. Are you seeking to manipulate your child or get cooperative teamwork?
- When you catch yourself bribing, change your sentence to “When you ___ then you can ____.” In the first blank, state the value of the request or rule. In the second blank, acknowledge what they want.
- Wean yourself and your children off external rewards. Instead, seek and point out the internal benefits of good behavior.
- Feel free to share how it feels to give up using bribes and rewards in the comment section of this post, especially since you now have better options to use — and will be learning more in the coming days.
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