All parents have their own unique styles and strategies for raising their children. And one common tool in our toolbox - although not everyone likes to admit it - is bribing.

At first glance, the word “bribing” may conjure up some negative feelings or connotations. Sure, we'd all love for our children to do exactly as they're told without needing something in return, but in reality it's not always that easy.

Here's the good news: If you're a parent who admits to occasionally offering your child the promise of candy or toys (no judgement- we’ve all been there) you may not actually be bribing them. Rather, the reinforcement you're providing may actually be a reward. There's a fine line between these two concepts, but there are important distinctions that all caregivers should know and understand.

In this article, we're going to define and describe the differences between a bribe and reward, explain why rewards are important for children, and provide tips and tricks to offer appropriate and motivating rewards.

The Difference Between Bribes and Rewards

Let’s start by reviewing some similarities and differences between bribes and rewards.

The commonality between bribes and rewards is that they're both used to motivate a child to do something in return. The key difference, however, is that bribes are given during the middle of a negative behavior, whereas a reward is decided upon ahead of time. Let's take a look at an example.

Pretend your child is crying and throwing a temper tantrum (you probably don't even have to pretend). You decide to placate your child by buying them an ice cream so long as they calm down. This is referred to as a bribe. You have bribed them and then positively reinforced their negative behavior.

When children are routinely bribed, they start to learn that acting poorly is key to getting something they want in return, which in turn can perpetuate a cycle of bad behavior.

Rewards, on the other hand, are discussed and determined ahead of time between you and your child. They can also be communicated to your child after they have completed a desired task. Either way, your child only receives the reward once they've displayed positive behavior, solidifying this connection in their mind.

See the difference?

Here’s an example of a reward: You tell your child in advance that you will buy them an ice cream cone once they clean their room. Or maybe your child is extra cooperative at their doctor’s appointment, and you decide to buy them an ice cream afterwards. In both cases, they begin to clearly understand that getting something they want requires that they act as expected.

Bribing is a short-term solution that can create long-term problems. It can be very tempting - and believe me, we're all guilty - of giving our children something in the moment to pacify their unwanted behavior. However, overtime it can create problems that could have been avoided by focusing on implementing rewards.

Why Children Need Rewards

You don't want to reward your child after every little thing they do. However, it's very healthy and productive to offer rewards after your child completes tasks that are challenging or less pleasant.

Adults need motivation and rewards, too. As humans, we respond to incentives. We're much more inclined to do certain tasks, or partake in certain behaviors, if we know there's a concession on the other side. Working overtime at your job is a great example. Many of us wouldn't agree to put in extra hours without being compensated.

Rewarding your child follows the same concept, and their positive response to rewards is developmentally normal. The trick is to make sure you find the right reward for your child. Let’s discuss how to make sure the reward is appropriate for the situation/task at hand.

How to Select a Reward

There are many different types of rewards. In order for a reward to be effective, it has to be desired by your child and fit their personality. Read the list below and think about what types of rewards are most motivating for your little one.  

  • Verbal Encouragement: Even saying something as simple as, “Great job!” or “I’m so proud of you!” is considered a reward. Those words create positive feelings for our little ones. You can even offer high fives and fist bumps! This type of encouragement is easy to provide, can be offered for tasks big and small, and best of all they're free!
  • Stickers/Reward Charts: Some children respond really well to stickers as a motivating force. That's why in many classrooms you'll find a sticker chart, which can be easily recreated at home! Find some stickers your child loves - maybe of their favorite animals, characters, or even a classic smiley face or gold star. You can also use stickers to work towards a bigger reward. For example, every sticker your child gets is placed on a calendar. Then, at the end of the week or month, if they have enough stickers your child can pick out a bigger prize agreed upon beforehand.
  • Picking a Treat: I'll speak for myself when I say food is my biggest motivator! And many children feel the same way. For more simple, everyday tasks, you can allow your child to pick out an extra snack or candy at home. For a bigger reward, you can go get ice cream or pick out a special treat at the store. Just remember to keep the size of the reward equivalent to the difficulty of the job completed.
  • Allow Your Child to Select the Prize: To give your child a little sense of control, allow them to pick their own reward (within the parameters that you provide, of course). You could allow your child to select one chore that they get to skip for the week, pick dessert for the night, choose a new toy, or maybe get some extra playtime outside.

As mentioned, you want to make sure that the incentive provided is equal to the amount of work your child completed. Why? If you tell your child they get a new toy every time they clean their room, you may have a spotless room - but that'll get expensive quick! Your child may then come to expect a much larger reward if they complete a harder task or clean another room in the house. You will likely run out of ideas and your child may lose motivation. So make sure the rewards are appropriate for the task at hand.

What About Rewards for Communication?

Shifting gears a bit, let’s discuss rewards when it comes to teaching children speech and language skills.

Motivation has to be present to help a child speak - and there is nothing wrong with providing rewards when they practice their verbalizations. There is actually a term for this called communication temptation.

Communication temptations are situations or items that encourage a child to communicate. If a child sees a cookie on the table, but they can’t quite reach it, they may be motivated to verbally ask for help. If they want to swing, but need some momentum, they may use language to request a push.

The reward further compels your child to communicate in other situations going forward, therefore starting the process of language development.

If your child needs a little motivation when it comes to talking, check out our article on communication temptations. It discusses this technique in detail as well as specific ideas you can start implementing at home today!