Monday, August 08, 2011

Bribes and Rewards

There is a fictive idea floating about the parenting world that if a child trades behaviors for things which he or she wants, then the child has been bribed, and this is bad.
The argument that it is bad goes something like "bribery doesn't teach the child to always perform the behavior and teaches them to extort their parents by holding out for bigger and better bribes."  On the surface, that makes sense.  However, the argument presupposes that all behavior based exchanges are in fact bribery.  I don't think this is the case.
I think bribery is what happens out of desperation.  Things like "stop throwing a tantrum and mommy will buy you that doll she just said you couldn't have." I don't think it's bribery to say "If you behave well and don't beg for things, you can pick out a new *something reasonable that the child wants* before we leave."
I think it's perfectly reasonable to reward children for their good behavior, and to even set up a schedule of how they'll be rewarded.  In my house, if JabberWalky wakes up dry in the morning or from a nap, he gets an M&M. He gets another for going pee on his potty chair, another for going poop, and yet one more for pulling up his pants afterward.  We use M&Ms because he likes them. When we're at grandma's we use marshmallows, because he likes them.  Not everyone wants a treat, but he does, and he is proud when he earns them.  He likes earning them.  He doesn't always eat them all. Sometimes he shares them with his sister when he earns them, but picking each one out, and dictating their color mean a lot to him, because he knows he has accomplished something and is being rewarded for it.
I'm not going to tell you  rewards are good because they work, but they do work.  Rather, rewards are good because they build self esteem. They're a tangible way for the child to know "I did well and what I did has been acknowledged."
But that is not a bribe.  A bribe is a dirty word associated with paying people off to do something which they otherwise wouldn't. A bribe is given when someone goes against their better judgement or their nature to do what you want. Bribes are given to make people act like someone they aren't. There is no learning involved.  When you tell your kid "if you don't tell mom we were late to your play date, I'll buy you icecream," that's a bribe.  Bribes aren't healthy, and they're not productive.  They don't show pride in accomplishment, and they don't build self esteem.
Rewards should do both.
This summer, the library used a reward system to encourage the kids in the Summer Reading Program. For the tiny children, for every five books they listened to, they got another sticker for their poster to proudly display in the library.  Now, my son likes listening to books, but if he was fussy and not sure he wants to listen, I could ask if he wanted to listen for stickers, and sometimes he'd say yes, and sometimes he'd say no, but when he got to place the stickers he earned, he was invariably beaming with pride.
Now, the argument that rewards are like bribes because they teach children to value the reward rather than the behavior is difficult to address because over time, the sorts of behaviors parents most frequently reward tend to become rote and habit.  Over time, children quit needing praise for basic skills as they move on to more complex types of learning and their rewards become equally complex.
Eventually using the potty like a big boy will become second nature and he won't need rewards to reenforce the efforts he is making to learn to live la vida diaper free.  One of these days I'm sure I'll be rewarding him for working hard on learning to read, and then later still he'll be rewarded with more reading time for helping me do something that needs to be done like the dreaded chores.
Then, when he's on his own, he'll be doing those chores and the reward will be the clean space when he's done, and he'll be rewarding himself for things I can't imagine in ways I may never know.
So why do rewards get such a bad wrap?
I really don't know. Our entire society functions on a reward system. For example, being a member of the workforce. Going to work is not a behavior that anyone would choose if they weren't being rewarded.  If you're one of the rare people who would do your job even if you weren't being paid, gods bless you, you're likely a SAHM, but chances are, you do your job for the money.  So are you being bribed to go to work, or are you earning your money? Well, unless you're getting paid under the table for your cooperation with the Mob, you're probably using your skills set to earn your money, which is the reward the company for which you work gives you in exchange for doing the behaviors they want. If you're self employed, you're still out to get rewarded for your efforts.
Don't worry, there's nothing wrong with doing things for a reward. Rewards are good. That's why time spent doing something wonderful with one's family is often described as being "rewarding."  Rewards are good.

3 reflections:

Julie said...

I totally agree with you on this one. We used M&M's for Brandon's potty training and it did work well. After about a month or so, he stopped asking for the M&M's after every time on the toilet, so I didn't give him the M&M's unless he specifically asked for them. In about a week's time after that, he didn't ask for them anymore. Now he uses the toilet because he has to go to the potty. He does throw a fit if he is not allowed to flush the toilet after he uses it, so I guess in a way that could still be a "reward."

Slee said...

yes, my son wants to flush the potty even when I use it! lol. he really enjoys the mechanical aspect of flushing.
I personally find it kind of creepy, but it's his favorite.
I am reminded of the
Tiny Toons episode with "toiley paper go down the hole"

Julie said...

I thought it a little weird at first, but now all I have to do is set the potty seat on the toilet, set him on it, and take him off it when he's done. He takes his own shorts off and puts them back on (he's still too little to keep them on while sitting on the potty) and he is sure to flush the toilet when he's done, lol.