Bribe vs. Reward: The Great Debate

The moment I walked into the bulk store with my two littles I knew it was a mistake. I usually go alone when I need a few items but this day I was rushing around trying to complete pre-Christmas errands and brought them in without really thinking about it.

Bad idea.They were literally "kids in a candy store" and I was about to literally "take candy from a baby" - by the way, these are metaphors for a reason, not something you want to happen in real life.

Their eyes lit up at the rows and rows of sweets and not two seconds passed before Mr. M (3yo) started asking, nay, BEGGING, for candy and Miss M (5yo) immediately joined him. When I explained that we were just picking up a few items, she started whining that she wanted caaaaan-dyyyyy, and he broke down into full-fledged heartbroken sobs.

As people started giving me the "Control your children!!!" stare, and his wails and her whines got louder, I had a decision to make. Leave now with both of them sobbing and try to come back later to get my items, or try to fix this somehow. I shushed them a few times, then finally, in a guilt-laden tone, I muttered, "If you're quiet and cooperate while I'm shopping, I'll let you have ONE PIECE of candy before we leave." 

They gazed up at me, sniffling, trying to figure out if I was legit or not, then seemed to decide it was worth the risk. Mr. M snuffled back his tears and Miss M's whines subsided and both were wonderful the rest of the short trip (I didn't dawdle though, just to be safe). As we got the last item, I also let them each pick out a piece of candy, added it to my purchases and we were done and all happy with the outcome. To me, their good behaviour was worth the candy I bought it for.

But was that lazy parenting? Or smart parenting? Was I bribing them or rewarding them? Is there even a difference?

I struggled for awhile with this but then had a psychologist friend explain it to me this way (I'm paraphrasing):

  • A bribe is given for something that someone wouldn't normally do as part of their character, and which may negatively affect someone. For example, "If you hit your friend, I'll give you a hundred dollars."

  • A reward is given for something that someone may need some extra motivation to do, that doesn't negatively affect anyone else and reinforces the positive behaviour. For example, "If you work all day, I'll give you a paycheque."

This made sense to me. Going into a candy store is really hard for little kids. They want EVERYTHING they see (heck, *I* want everything I see!!). Behaving nicely is a LOT of work for them in this scenario, especially after a long morning of running errands already. When they do so, I think they deserve a reward, a payment of sorts. 

Before I had kids, I had two dogs who needed a lot of extra "motivation" to behave properly and I didn't hesitate to drop them rewards for good behaviour. Sometimes, if they were just sitting there nicely, and I hadn't even asked them to, I'd drop them a treat. My pockets smelled like liver and hot dogs because I was always ready with a treat to reward them for good behaviour, and reinforce the behaviour they were doing.

My late, great furbabies...and you better believe I had a treat in my hand to get them to sit still for this picture

My late, great furbabies...and you better believe I had a treat in my hand to get them to sit still for this picture

Kids aren't that far off from dogs (stay with me here). Kids are learning new things constantly and we expect a lot of good behaviour out of them. Their JOB is to learn how to be good citizens and behave appropriately in various situations.

Why not reward them for doing that job? The alternative is always deducting from the kids' "paycheque" and taking things away for bad behaviour, without adding any rewards for the good stuff. Trust me, I've said, "Stop this or you'll lose (fill in the blank privilege/toy/treat)" my share of times, and still do when needed, but it's never as successful as telling them what they CAN do and all of us being happy with the outcome.

And, to be clear, the reward doesn't need to be candy. A lot of times a reward is an extra book at bedtime, staying up a little later at bedtime, colouring together or playing a board game.

So I don't feel guilty now offering rewards for good behaviour. I don't do it every time, and sometimes it's as simple as a pat on the head and a "good dog," er, I mean "good kid," and that pleases them just enough to be noticed being good. What's that saying? Catch them being good? 

But, as a heads-up, when you take little kids into a candy store, a pat on the head probably just isn't going to cut it.

What do you think? Do you give rewards for good behaviour? Do you think there really is a difference between a reward and a bribe?