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It’s not bribery. It’s incentivizing!

There’s a lot of talk in parenting circles about how you shouldn’t bribe your kids to do the stuff you want/need them to do. Some people swear that if you potty train your kid with m&ms you’re a big ol’ screw up and your child will never learn to potty without the promise of a sweet reward.

I’d like to take a minute to retrain your thought process on bribes. Because really, you’re not exactly bribing your child when you do stuff like this.

You’re incentivizing. (Maybe a made-up word. Just go with it.)

Understanding the difference between a bribe and an incentive is all about understanding some basic psychology.

Psychology tells us that negative reinforcement is when we reinforce negative behavior. That is, we make the thing we don’t want to happen happen more frequently because we give in. (Say it with me: Negative reinforcement is NOT punishment.) Positive reinforcement, therefore, is when we reinforce positive behavior and encourage it to happen more often.

Example: You’re in Target. Your kid is weeping, wailing, and gnashing his teeth and people are looking at you all judge-y like. You buy or give the kid a pack of Goldfish, or a small toy, or a cookie, just to stop the tantrum.

This is bribery. That’s negative reinforcement.

You’re essentially paying your kid off to make you look good in public like some kind of corrupt politician. (I feel like “corrupt politician” is maybe redundant sometimes, don’t you? Anyway, I digress.)

Eventually, your child will do this often enough so that you never take him/her in public again (child wins) or you always buy him/her something just so the child will stop screaming (child wins again).

An alternate scene looks like this: “Hey, kid, if you’re good and you don’t throw a fit and make people look at me weird, you can have some Goldfish when we leave.”

This is incentivizing. That’s positive reinforcement.

Expecting children to go into a store and never throw a fit because they just shouldn’t do that because I said so is maybe insane of us.

It’s true positive reinforcement when you don’t have a prearranged “if you’re good, then…” deal set up, but I think for the purposes of altering behavior, it’s a good idea to let the child know what you expect before you expect it and to offer an incentive for meeting that expectation. You have to model and teach the behavior you want to receive before you can receive it.

Two sentence summary?

They’re kids. Teach them how you want them to behave instead of just expecting that they will behave that way.

I believe that offering incentives for good behavior is better than beating the snot out of your kid for “acting up” or never leaving your house. Or creating entitled brats because you bought them a crapton of junk just to make them shut up.

And I know I’m not alone.

If you teach your child the way you want him/her to behave by offering a reward for the good behavior, you have leverage. If the child doesn’t behave? The child doesn’t get whatever the previously agreed upon reward may be. So next time, the child will either behave and get the reward, or not behave and well, not get the reward.

“But Miranda,” you say, “I shouldn’t have to pay my child.”

Incentivizing doesn’t last forever. Eventually, you pull back on the frequency and excitement of the incentives being offered. And the type of incentive varies based on the child.

Some kids are praise-seekers and will work incredibly hard to hear “I’m so proud of you!” Others crave tangibles, and tangible incentives are anything that your child will work hard enough to earn.

Stickers. A special treat like a popsicle. A half-hour television show he wouldn’t ordinarily get to watch. An extra book at bedtime. A trip to the playground. Playing with a special toy (like Play-doh. ugh.).

All of these are incentives I’ve used to get Joshua to do what I need/want him to do. Like take a nap. Or eat his lunch. Or get into the bath tub. Or put on his pajamas.

And sometimes he chooses to forgo the incentive in favor of NOT doing what I want him to do. Like take a nap. And that’s frustrating in a lot of ways.

The thing I love about incentives is that they mold behavior without harsh punishment.

Don’t get me wrong. We have our fair share of time-outs and tantrums. And Joshua can push buttons with the best of them.

But life is more pleasant when he wins a little and I win a lot.

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Friday 16th of November 2012

YES! And thanks for making me feel a little better. We do this exact thing. Around when Ollie was born, Landon stopped napping at school. We simply made the statement "If you nap at school, you can have your ipod in the car on the way home". BOOM. Nap almost every day now. He comes bounding out of school saying "I took a nap!".

If anything is big on the horizon event wise, we don't tell him until we can use to our advantage. Like tonight at bedtime I am sure he will whine about something and these words will come out of our mouths "If you are a good listener, eat good bites at dinner, brush your teeth and don't whine tonight, there will be a special surprise in the morning." He will light up and do EVERYTHING we ask. He will get up saying "I was a good listener and took a slepp , mommy! Can I have my special surprise". If all goes well, he gets to go to Truck Day. He has no idea of this truck day right now...on purpose. Last weekend it was a trip to the park with a friend. Weekend before a parade. If he listens at school, we drive through the airport on the way home(simple thing). It works. He sees the consequences to his actions. Some days he is a shithead and gets nothing and he mopes but he gets it. He says "I will be a better listener mommy"

Flip side of this we have found taking something he already has away doesn't work. WE tried that pile of toys on the counter when he raged about something. It just made the raging worse and he then forgot about said toy and moved on.

Totally with you. It works.


Friday 9th of November 2012

Yeah, they teach this to teachers in our education classes. Catch em being good, praise em like crazy & reward them. They'll become addicts to it & keep doing it. Kids operate far better with positive reinforcement than negative (which is technically chastising them for behaving in a manner you don't want...bribery is giving them something to get them to stop behaving badly, there's a fine line between the two).


Friday 9th of November 2012

Dude, I totally think bribery is an essential parenting tool. I like your word for it better, though.

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