I don’t remember which show it was that we just finished watching, but there was an element of the plot that involved a bribe being given to an elected official. In exchange for the money (of course, it was in unmarked bills in a nondescript briefcase), the official would look the other way and allow something unseemly to occur.

Now, these kinds of behaviors are illegal, of course, and plenty of people have gone to jail in “pay to play” schemes. Yet, as parents, we often find ourselves bribing our children. Have some screen time so you don’t bother me. Finish your broccoli and you will get some ice cream.

This got me thinking, though, was I ok with bribing my own kids?

A Bribe Defined

Bribery has a clear definition in the law. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, bribery is “the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of any item of value to influence the actions of an official or another person in charge of a public or legal duty.”

For example, one of the most notable bribery cases in modern history was the allegations of bribery of Vice President Spiro Agnew. He was forced to resign when it was discovered, among other things, it became clear that he had taken illegal campaign contributions.

Well, our kids aren’t public officials, so can they be bribed?

The answer is, of course, yes. It all lies in the timing.

When Is a Bribe Not a Bribe

So, a bribe isn’t a bribe when it is a reward. The difference has to do with when you receive something. If you get the thing before you do the action, it’s a bribe. For example, if you hand your daughter a lollipop and tell her to behave when you go in the store, you are bribing her. Giving your child your cell phone so that they don’t annoy you is a bribe.

On the other hand, if you give her the lollipop after she behaves in the store, you are rewarding her. Rewards occur after the event and bribes occur before.

Bribes also more frequently occur under duress. We tend to resort to them when we are desperate and are looking for any lever with which to move our child’s behavior. We begin by escalating our offers as we negotiate rather using more effective behavior management tools.

Rewards, however, are the system that we work in most often as adults. If you put in a week’s worth of work, you will come home with your weekly paycheck. You get compensated for the things that you did.

Getting Technical – Reinforcement and Punishment

Because talking about rewards and bribes moves into the differences between reinforcement and punishment, let’s take a quick detour to clear up any confusion around these terms, too.

Reinforcement refers to strategies that could be used to increase the chance that a behavior will occur. Punishment, on the other hand, is designed to reduce the occurrence of a behavior. So reinforcement equals making the behavior happen more often and punishment is for reducing how often a behavior occurs.

Both reinforcement and punishment come in positive and negative flavors. Positive refers to adding something (which could be pleasurable or not) and negative refers to taking something away. This is where the confusion usually starts. Let’s break this apart to make it more understandable.

Positive reinforcement is when you provide something that will increase the behavior. For example, praising your child emptying the dishwasher is a form of positive reinforcement. The stimulus is praise and the desired behavior is emptying the dishwasher.

Negative reinforcement happens when you remove something after the target behavior is exhibited. Usually, this is an aversive stimulus (in other words something unpleasant that the child is experiencing). The behavior is then increased in the future in order to avoid the negative consequence. For example, nagging your child about cleaning up his room is an example of negative reinforcement. The nagging is the stimulus that you are removing to increase the behavior of cleaning up the room. Turning off your alarm clock buzzer in the morning is a negative reinforcement for getting up out of bed faster.

Punishment too comes in both positive and negative formats. Positive punishment involves adding something. It might be that you verbally reprimand your child for pulling the cat’s tail. The reprimand (something that you add to the situation, hence positive) reduces the behavior (cat tail pulling). Negative punishment, on the other hand, involves removing something to reduce the behavior such as taking away a favorite toy because your child hit her sister.

Where this gets confusing is that sometimes things that we view as punishment are actually reinforcements based upon the definition that behaviorists use. Spanking, for example, is a positive punishment. Timeout, on the other hand, is a negative punishment.

So your bribe or your reward might be a reinforcement or a punishment depending on whether you are trying to increase a behavior occurring or decreasing it.

Practical Strategies for Getting Your Kids to Do Things

The key to getting our kids to do things is to be intentional whenever possible and to make sure that you are willing to continue to innovate as you learn which strategies work and which ones don’t work. Generally, we want to be rewarding our kids rather than bribing them, but as practical parents, we know that this isn’t always possible.

Here are four simple strategies to help you be more conscious about your choices when you think you might need a bribe or a reward:

Come up with a list of reinforcers in advance with your kids.

This might seem silly, but it is a lot easier to reward (or bribe, if necessary) if you know the kinds of things that your kids are interested in earning. The list should be a variety of things some physical (e.g. special foods) and some intangible (e.g. spending time doing something). It’s much easier to reward your children with things of lower value than it is of higher value. After all, how many times can you afford to offer them a trip to Disney World?

A list of Practical Strategies for Getting Your Kids to Do ThingsBe clear about expectations.

If you aren’t clear about what you want your child to do, you can pretty much guarantee that it is not going to happen the way that you envision it. Be specific and give details when asking your child to do something. Make sure that the task is within reach of their abilities and knowledge. If it isn’t, think about how to break it into smaller pieces to make it manageable.

Look at why something isn’t happening.

If your child isn’t getting something done, it’s time to break out your toolbox of questions. Ask them what makes it difficult to do something. Help them wonder how to solve the problem in front of them. Consider coaching them through the task to help them build the skills.

Check in on emotions.

Knowing how your child is feeling can go a long way to helping them get something done. Anxiety, sadness, and even hunger can get in the way of being focused and self-aware. Asking questions about feelings can help identify thoughts that might be getting in the way.

In the end, the need to bribe our kids is dependent upon our actions and not our child’s.

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