Bribes, Rewards and Praise – what’s the difference and does it matter?

‘If you sit on the potty, you can have a Smartie.’

‘Thank you for helping pack up the toys. Now we can go to the park.’

‘I will get you the ice-cream now if you promise you will sit still in the doctor’s room.’

What is the difference between a bribe and a reward?

A bribe is something offered before the task in order to get your child to do what you want him to do (so the first and third example are bribes). A reward (the second example) is something that happens after the event.

Does it matter, as long as it makes your child cooperate?

Well, that depends on what you are trying to teach him. Do you want a child who will only do things if there is something in it for him? Do you want to encourage your child to have an unreasonable sense of entitlement, to ask himself, ‘What’s in it for me?’ each time there is a job to be done?

Or would you like to teach your child that when he cooperates or works hard, he will feel satisfied by a job well done? That work comes before play? That it is good to consider everybody’s needs? And that because your tot has helped you, you feel pleased with him and perhaps now have energy and time to spend with him? Of course, some of these goals are beyond a toddler’s capacity to understand, but it is worth setting a pattern and developing a family culture around positive values.

Any one of us in a hurry or desperate to motivate our child can resort to bribery or rewards (or is that offering ‘incentives’?), but it does pay to be cautious about our own motivation and methods.

It is perfectly reasonable to say, ‘When you are in your pyjamas we will have a story,’ or ‘When the toys are packed away, we can go to the park,’ but offering bribes, especially material goods, every time we want to enlist cooperation is likely to backfire.

Looking at the examples above, offering Smarties could cause your child to race to the potty every few minutes in order to get a treat, rather than learning to actually use the potty. And an ice-cream delivered before a visit to the doctor won’t motivate any child to live up to his promise of cooperation – he has the prize, what does it matter? Besides, a toddler lives in the present: he doesn’t have the cognitive skills or impulse control required to think ahead, so he can’t be held to a promise, whatever the incentive.

Apart from the fact that children become wise and are likely to raise the stakes for bribery and rewards (read, ask for bigger incentives as they grow – imagine offering something big if they kick a goal in their footy match!), they may eventually refuse to do a single thing unless there is something in it for them. Also, if you constantly give rewards for good behaviour or achievements, then one day when you don’t give a reward, your child may give up and stop trying.

Even worse, when a reward is attached to every achievement, we devalue our child’s efforts because we are subtly telling him we didn’t think he was up to the task, and this is no help to his self-esteem.

At least most of the time, it’s best to allow your child to have the satisfaction of achieving a goal by simply acknowledging his efforts. Occasionally, you could offer a small reward that is a natural consequence of his cooperation. There is another principle at work here, too – psychologists call it ‘intermittent reinforcement’, which means that giving occasional rewards as a surprise works better from a behavioural perspective than having your child expect a reward each time he does something wonderful. Being mindful of rewards (for effort, rather than achievement) and bribery (which comes before the deed so can have trade-offs, especially in the longer term) means that your child will be more likely to strive because he will be intrinsically motivated.

Dishing out praise

We like recognition for a job well done, and so do children. It is perfectly natural to delight in every little thing your toddler does – he is cute and funny and is doing new tricks every single day, so how can you resist telling your child how clever he is?

Just as with rewards, though, we need to be cautious with praise. While a spontaneous, ‘Wow! What a clever kid!’ won’t do any harm, if you heap on the praise for every breath your child takes, you run the risk of setting up a ‘great expectations’ trap. This can mean that, as your child grows, he feels he has to keep performing to be accepted and loved. This can contribute to a fear of failure, which may mean that your child is so dependent on the approval of others that he may be afraid to try new things.

Positive praise

Instead of gushing, ‘What a lovely painting!’ it is better to offer realistic compliments: admire the bright blue sky or the very wiggly lines or tell your child, ‘What a lot of colours you have used, I can’t wait to hang this up on the wall.’

Another positive way to offer praise without overdoing it is a process called ‘mirroring’ which involves naming exactly what a child has done.

By mirroring back to your child what he or she has done (‘You have climbed five steps on the ladder, all by yourself!’, ‘thank you for sitting quietly while I was talking to the nurse’), you are giving them tangible evidence of their efforts, not just empty words that may or may not be believable to them.

You can extend mirroring to include a quality: ‘You are so patient for letting me talk without interrupting.’ Other examples could be: ‘Thank you for remembering to shut the car door. That was very responsible,’ or ‘Good sharing, that is so kind.’ This helps nourish your child’s identity so that he will begin to think of himself as a genuinely competent person, seeing himself as kind, responsible, generous, helpful, funny, strong and whatever other positive labels you choose to describe his efforts.

This positive praise is far more powerful than empty praise that can see your child undermined the first time another child says, ‘What a dumb block tower.’ Because your child will have tangible evidence that he really is competent, his self-esteem will not be dependent on constant recognition and he won’t crumple like a stack of blocks with the slightest hint of disapproval.

A small but important caution about dishing out praise is to remember to notice your child ‘being good’. How often do we ignore ‘good’ (read, convenient) behaviour, but notice the smallest mistake? It’s simple to say, ‘thank you for listening,’ but it can make a big difference to a child to feel acknowledged. Feeling noticed and valued can nourish their emotional tank so they don’t need to ‘act up’ as a means to connect with you.

For more strategies to make magic from mayhem during the toddler years, see Pinky McKay’s  book – “Toddler Tactics” (Penguin)  and her recording package of interviews with child development specialists – ‘Terrific Toddlers – how to make your toddler happier smarter and more co-operative as you lay the foundations for learning, literacy and loving life’.