Are Bribes And Rewards Ever OkayMay 21, 2021
“Rewards are problematic because you're not calling upon your attachment and connection with your child to motivate change. You have to go to something external that you feel might have an influence on your children because you don't.”
This week on the 3D Parent Podcast, I’m discussing the use of bribes and rewards with children. While these kinds of external motivators can sometimes be helpful, using them for long-term discipline actually creates more problems.
We will go over topics such as:
- What makes bribes and rewards problematic
- How rewards can affect children’s development
- When using external motivation can be helpful
To help children mature, we have to stop treating them like rats in a Psychology experiment! To grow emotionally, they need to learn how to self-regulate and be internally motivated. I hope this episode inspires you to take a different and more effective approach to your parenting.
Things You Will Learn
[00:03] If you are a frequent listener of this podcast, you may know that as a rule of thumb, I discourage external rewards– things like bribes, sticker charts, treats, and punishment's. While these techniques may seem to work in the short term, in the long term, they can become problematic. There is a limit to how successful they can be. But you might wonder, “Do you ever use or encourage these types of external rewards?” And my answer is very rarely. If I’m focusing on something that’s more of a short-term goal for my children, or if I’m wanting to help them start a new habit, I occasionally use external rewards. But the danger is in relying on it for long-term, consistent discipline.
[02:37] In his book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn discusses what makes rewards and bribes problematic. Using rewards and punishments is called operant conditioning, and its use in Psychology originates largely from B.F. Skinner’s experiments with rats. Skinner conditioned rats to push levers and navigate mazes by rewarding them with food. It’s important to take a moment and realize that we are not raising rats! Our children are human beings, and it’s honestly dehumanizing and demoralizing to think they can be conditioned in the same way as animals. We have to go deeper than that and focus on our children growing and learning more maturity and self-regulation.
[05:00] Here’s a quote I really like from Kohn, “Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.” If you’re relying on a bribe to get your child to do a wanted behavior, you’re not really teaching them to want to do that behavior. You’re teaching them to want the reward they get from doing that behavior. And the more rewards are used, the more they’re going to be needed. Your children will need larger and larger incentives to do the desired behavior. The novelty of the reward you choose will wear off, and they will want something bigger. You get into a vicious cycle of an external motivator being the thing your child needs to do something new or challenging.
[08:32] The other reason why rewards and bribes are problematic is that they don’t actually help children mature and grow out of problematic behaviors. These behaviors are generally stemming from a deeper issue that needs to be addressed, and bribes are not going to fix that root problem. Here’s the truth: while rewards may help your children act more mature, they won’t help them be more mature. If we want our children to really grow, we have to teach them in a different way.
[10:49] Another reason why rewards are problematic is that they are inherently unfair. Much of the time, the children who are most successful in earning rewards are actually the ones who need those external systems the least. Meanwhile, the children who struggle will inevitably feel frustrated and less motivated. They will compare themselves to their peers and feel like they are less than. Children who struggle are typically ones with fewer self-regulation capabilities. Using rewards can backfire and actually make these children less motivated to learn new things or stop undesired behaviors.
[14:22] In many classroom settings, teachers will use some kind of reward system, often ones that involve an entire class working together to earn a reward like a party. This system can backfire. Children who are at a lower maturity level will struggle and hold the entire group back, and this also leads to resentment for children at a higher maturity level. I’m not saying these tactics can’t be useful in some cases, but it’s important to recognize how they can potentially be problematic. And it’s especially important not to use them in the home with siblings. This will inevitably lead to more sibling rivalry and conflict.
[16:16] Now after telling you all the ways rewards can be an issue, I’m going to share with you where I break my own rule. I make an exception for planes and family photos. Here’s why: in these types of situations, I really only need my children to act more mature for a little bit. I just need them to behave for a little while to get through the trip or get that nice family shot. I don’t have the time to help my children mature in these moments. So if it’s for a short amount of time and in a specific situation, rewards can be more acceptable to use.
[20:27] Other times when little rewards or incentives can be helpful is in helping your children try something new. These are more for building habits or other short-term goals. Oftentimes children have fear around something new or unfamiliar. With these situations, you can use a small reward just as a little incentive for getting the habit started, and then you don’t have to use it anymore.
[22:46] One thing that’s helpful is to use positive associations with trying a new skill, rather than framing it in an “if you, then I’ll” way. For example, if you wanted to get your child to try a ski lesson for the first time, you might say something like, “In the morning we’re going to go to a ski lesson, and we’ll stop for donuts on the way there.” This is associating the donut with the ski lesson. Your child might “buy-in” because of the donut, but you know when they get to the lesson they’ll probably enjoy it. And then they won’t need to have a donut every time they do it. They will have developed their own internal motivation to do the lessons. This is particularly helpful for a situation you want your child to experience that you’re pretty sure they will like.
[25:13] Another time when the use of these rewards can be helpful is when it’s child-initiated. This is a situation where you can help your children motivate themselves, and it’s more for older, more mature children. This isn’t the same thing as your child asking you for a reward. So for example, if your child says, “If I learn to play this song on the piano, can I get an ice cream?” That would be them asking you for something. It needs to be something your child decides to do for themselves. So if your child says, “I think each time I finish a chapter in my history book, I’m going to watch one episode of a show on Netflix,” that would be them creating their own motivation. And that’s something you can encourage.
[28:14] If you are using a reward, try not to make it about performance. If you set something up as “If you, then I’ll,” your children will immediately be on the defense. They’ll wonder why you’re going to give them something. What’s the catch? And they also might become little negotiators themselves, saying they’ll do it if you give them a bigger reward. They can totally play our games! So make it more of a positive association. You can say something like, “We’re going to this new class, and then we are going to pick out a movie to watch on our movie night.” That’s not tied to performance; it’s just setting up a positive incentive.
[31:22] The bottom line is to never use bribes for long-term behavior management or as a frequent motivator. It will only backfire. You will have much more success in setting up positive associations and incentives. Remember, we want our kids ultimately to be internally motivated and not rely on external rewards!
Quotes From Episode 63
“When you’re using these external means to try and get a change in your child’s behavior, or if this is your primary means of discipline, you’re not going down the path of helping your child truly come into their own maturity.”
“Rewards are problematic because you’re not calling upon your attachment and connection with your child to motivate change. You have to go to something external that you feel might have an influence on your children because you don’t.”
“We don’t want our children to act more mature. We want them to become more mature.”
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