Is bribing kids part of your parenting toolbox?

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Have you ever found yourself saying “If you stop doing that, then I will give you what you want” or perhaps something like “Good for you”? Have you ever been confused about whether you’re bribing your kids or simply praising them… and if there really is a difference between the two?

Is Bribing Kids Part of Your Parenting Toolbox?

Bribing kids vs. reinforcement

The answer is yes. Bribery and reinforcement are two very different approaches to parenting, but they are often misused and misunderstood.  So what is the difference between the two? 

As parents, you may find yourself in a situation where your child is misbehaving or acting out in order to get what they want or simply because they are unhappy about a particular situation. In an effort to get them to stop and for you to gain control, you promise them something and state a condition. You tell them that if they stop doing the undesirable behavior, then a more desirable consequence will follow. For example: “If you stop yelling and pick up your toys, then I will give you treat.” This is a prime example of bribery.

When bribery becomes a gray area

There is also a “gray” area when it comes to bribery.  It is more along the lines of an “If/then” statement — not necessarily paired with misbehavior — used in the hopes to prevent any challenges. In order to get your child to do something or help them transition from a preferred activity like watching television to a less preferred activity like helping with chores, you state a desirable condition for them.  For example, “If you stop watching television and help me with the chores, I will let you stay up late tonight and watch an extra hour of your favorite show.”  You are on the verge of entering the bribery zone with statements like these, even to avoid an argument and the likelihood of problematic behaviors.

The problem with bribing kids

The main problem with using these approaches is that the novelty of the desirable outcome may eventually wear off and overtime bribing doesn’t work. So why do many parents use it? Well, it does work. In the moment, when emotions are running high and you are at your wit’s end, bribing can seem like an efficient way to deescalate the situation, gain control and get your child to do what you want. However, over time, by using this as an approach, we may be teaching our children to negotiate and attempt to manipulate everything they are asked to do, even when they don’t have a choice.

Turning bribery into reinforcement

So, what is the alternative? How is reinforcement a different and more positive approach to reducing challenging behavior and still being able to get kids to do what is excepted? Praising your children or providing them with a desirable item after they have engaged in a desirable behavior is considered positive reinforcement. The main difference is that you are using this approach as a means to let them know that they are doing a great job, will get rewarded for doing so which in turn, increases the likelihood that when in the same or similar situation, they will repeat the desirable behavior without you having to ask them. 

Parents can simply make a request and reinforce the times their child comply without having to state the outcome. For example, your daughter is watching television and notices that you are preparing dinner. Your daughter then approaches and starts to help you set the table. You are so happy that she is helping that you smile, give her a hug, explain how happy you are that she is helping and tell her that she can have dessert tonight even though it is week night and desserts are typically reserved for weekends. Your daughter smiles in return, asks if there is anything else she can help you with and the next night when you are preparing dinner, she immediately joins you and starts to set the table. This is the power of positive reinforcement.  No “if/then” statements or promises were made. Positive reinforcement is more than just praising your child.

The focus should be on their actions and not just vague statements.  Instead of saying “Good job!” try saying “I’m so happy that you helped me.” Positive reinforcement can take many forms — it can be verbal recognition or specific feedback/praise, access to a reward or preferred activity, and can be more socially based such as smiles, tickles, high-fives and hugs. The key is to find out what your child more readily responds to and use that as part of your parenting tool box.

Making the first moves towards positive reinforcement

You are probably asking yourself, “What if my child doesn’t initiate? How do you I get them to do the things I want them to do in the first place?” It is okay to state conditions that may include an if/then statement, however your timing is key. Too often we use these type of statements too close to the situation that may lead to undesirable behaviors.  It is also okay to remind your children of rules and expectations and of the consequences that may occur. Just be mindful of when you are using them.  Ideally, you want to provide reminders before the occurrence of or the possibility of any undesirable behaviors. The trick is to start with things that are attainable and to be consistent.

An easy trick to get you to practice is to put 10 elastic bands around your wrist, and find 10 different situations throughout the day that you can reinforce your child. Over time, this will be come common practice and you wont need to wear the elastic bands.

I promise you, if you stop using bribery to get your kids to do what you want and instead use more positive reinforcement, then you may find parenting a little easier!

This post was provided by Janet Arnold and Francine McLeod of Finding Solutions.  

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