I have met countless people over the years who frown upon incentives being used to get children to behave well. Children are being bribed for doing what they should do anyway. “Children should automatically behave and respect their elders”, they say.
I am sorry (not really) to report that this is not the case. It takes years of extrinsic incentives (physical and intangible rewards) to create intrinsic motivation in many children.
Offering children something in return for their appropriate behavior is seen by some as a powerful resource tool for helping to mold children’s behavior. On the other hand, some believe that this method is just plain bribery.
Without a doubt there is some grey area that exists – to the untrained eye that is.
Bribery is a short-term fix that makes behavior problems worse in the future. Bribery exists after a child will not comply and the adult in charge resorts to offering a desired item or privilege if only the child will do what they are being asked. If you find yourself in this situation, you end up pleading with and begging your child to comply. At this point you have handed over your last remaining shred of control. Ick!
Commonly this becomes a cycle of misbehavior that children use in exchange for a reward when they finally decide to use desired behavior. It also teaches children that they can get what they want by initially not complying. They have learned that they will be rewarded for eventually doing what they need to do, but first they must misbehave to get to that point. Chances are that this isn’t the first time that this lesson of non-compliance has been taught. Yikes!
Picture this: A family of 5 is eating at a restaurant and two of the children begin peeking over the booth at the couple eating behind them. The parents ask the kids to stop. The behavior continues. Parents now demand that the kids stay seated and leave that poor couple alone. Still no compliance. Now the threats come, “Sit down or ________ will happen”. Still no compliance. The parents see that the couple is beginning to become annoyed at the disturbance of not only the kids, but the parents constant redirection (that is failing miserably, by the way!). At this point, all the parents want is for their children to behave so they each offer their cell phone to the kids if they sit down. Finally the kids comply and are sitting quietly.
Analysis: Those two kids are totally in control and got exactly what they wanted. They have learned that they don’t need to listen the first few times that they are told to do something. They can continue to defy their parents and chances are, they will be reward in the end. In this situation, it was with screen time.
Snap-Shot: The kids were rewarded for misbehaving and took all control away from their parents.
Using rewards as a motivator and a teaching tool occurs when a pre-established plan is agreed upon between the parent and child prior to the request. The child knows that positive consequences can be earned based on their choices. This, ladies and gentleman, is NOT bribery. This is learning. Incentives given to use new skills is a great tool to foster healthy growth and development.
In my house an incentive program has taught my son how to get himself ready for school in the morning. He feels proud and independent. Plus, I feel less rushed in the morning. It’s a win-win for each of us. Definitely not a bribe! Its good ol’ fashioned responsibility at work. I love it!
Picture this: A mother creates a chart that is divided into a before school section and an after school section. In each of these sections are tasks based on the time of day. For example: get dressed, brush teeth, and feed the cat are all listed in the before school section. Complete homework, put homework in backpack, and pack a school snack are all listed in the after school section. When a task is complete, her son gets to move the magnet that is next to a task to the done column. Each magnet that gets to the done column represents a point. Points are added up each night and can be saved to purchase incentives off of the incentive menu. (Keep reading for incentive ideas for your home.)
Analysis: Both parent and child feel in control. Independence in the child is growing and both mom and child feel proud. Both are experiencing less stress because mom doesn’t have to repeat herself again and again to make sure tasks are complete. Her child moves his magnets on his own and tasks are done with no nagging or frustration. Her child feels a sense of accomplishment for earning rewards for jobs well done.
Snap-Shot: Both child and parent got what they need and want.
Think About It
Think about your own life….
Why do you go to work? Most of you would say for the paycheck.
Why do you do the laundry? To have clean clothes.
Why do you pay the bills? To keep the utilities on.
See that, you make choices to receive rewards every day and you probably never even thought of it that way.
When a child is consistently acknowledged for making positive choices, the drive to receive items or privileges slowly begins to change to desiring to do the right thing solely because they know deep down that it is the right thing to do.
What Incentives Should I Use With My Children?
Along WITH your kids, identify what motivates and interests them and use these as incentives for when they complete tasks and listen the first time. The list of incentives do not need to be tangible in nature. I repeat, they do not need to be tangible! Feel free to buy things for them if you choose; but you truly do not need to spend a fortune to reward your kids. Trust me, they are more happy with spending time with you over getting things anyway. Here are some intangible incentive ideas that may help you get started:
- A trip to the playground
- 15 minutes of extra screen time
- Having a friend over
- Extended curfew
- 15 minutes of staying up later
- Making ice cream sundaes with you
- Playing video games with you
Humans are always motivated to do things their way. If you can use incentives unique to your children, you can encourage them to achieve the results that they (and you) are looking for.
Tip:Ensure that your children are developmentally capable and knows how to perform the task that you are asking. If not, show them how to do it and practice with them until they are successful enough to do it on their own. Without having the ability to perform the task that you are asking, the incentive plan is useless and everyone is being set up to fail.
And remember, identify incentive choices WITH your child and establish them prior to giving your child a task. If you wait until your child displays defiance before offering the incentive, you end up teaching them that their defiance has a payoff.
Tell me again, “Why isn’t this bribery?”
If you read the first few paragraphs, this should sound familiar:
We all work for something. We all make decisions based on something. Those ‘somethings’ are called motivators. Use motivators to help your child make positive decisions and learn how to become more and more responsible. Identifying your child’s motivators must be done together. Kids have fun with this task and will likely be excited to get started.
Once you have motivators identified your kids will be looking forward to behaving and learning in order to earn an incentive. Plus, you will feel empowered knowing that you didn’t bribe your kids; you are using motivators to teach them how to act in a responsible and respectful manner. This is a wonderful place to be!
Incentives can include physical rewards such as toys. Alternately, they can be intangible such as verbal acknowledgements or extra privileges
Incentives can also be internally driven by your children. For example, doing the right thing results in them feeling proud. We call this intrinsic motivation. Of course this is our ultimate goal, it will just take some time to get there.
Behavior planning is the cornerstone to changing behavior. Without incentive there is no motivation. Check out our list of positive incentive examples to get you started!
The Magical Time
Doing the right things simply because it is right is our ultimate goal when behavior planning. When this magical time occurs, there will no longer be a need to have a formal behavior plan in place. Of course, your children will always do well to receive your praise and will benefit from your life guidance, but behavior planning becomes a thing of the past at this point.
Barb Roba, LMHC, CPC, Ed.M, CAS