I can picture the scene in my mind like it was yesterday.
Chubby legs kicking, back stiffened straight, child wailing, “NO mommy. NO get into the cart.”
Exasperated, I wondered if this trip to the grocery store was in vain. However, I needed to get food for dinner that night and this was my only opportunity.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that there was a lollipop buried in the bottom of my purse. Holding my daughter heavy on my hip with one arm, I frantically searched until I found it.
And, then I did the very thing I knew was wrong. I looked at her and quietly bribed,
“If you get in the cart, you can have this lollipop.”
At that moment she complied. While I may have won the momentary battle, I knew that I was losing the war. Rewards and bribes may appear similar in practice, but in reality they teach completely opposite lessons to our children. Here are three ways that bribes and rewards differ in subtle, yet important ways as we parent our children.
Who’s in Charge?
At the moment when I gave into my daughter’s tantrum, the reality is that she was in charge of our interaction.
A bribe is child demanded while a reward is parent directed.
For instance, in the car, it would have been wise for me to look at my toddler and say, “I know it sometimes can be difficult to be in the grocery cart. If you can get in the cart with no fuss and sit patiently, there may be a surprise for you in mommy’s purse.”
This simple conversation puts me in charge of our trip to the grocery store. A reward flows from proactive discernment that certain situations may be difficult for my child rather than reactive exasperation when things aren’t going well.
How’s it given?
A bribe is given out of parental frustration at a child’s wrong behavior. In contrast, a reward is given out of joyful recognition of a child’s right behavior.
A bribe is given begrudgingly, while a reward is given with delight. And, the reality is that our children easily discern the difference.
The child given the lollipop from a frustrated mom may be glad to receive the momentary pleasure, but in reality is that she leaves the experience feeling like she is a burden and frustration. A child who experiences the pleasure of a mother’s reward feels like a delight.
What does it encourage?
In the end, a bribe encourages incorrect behavior, while a reward encourages proper behavior.
A bribe teaches a child that if they fuss, scream, or pout, they will be pacified with something that brings them pleasure. It encourages the very thing that exasperates us as parents!
In contrast, a reward teaches our children the joy of walking in the right path. We want our children to hate what is wrong and to love what is right. As we reward them for making wise choices we encourage them towards love and good deeds.
Two children may both each receive a lollipop at the grocery store. However the method in which they won their treat has the power to teach two vastly different lessons. It simply will not go well for our children to think that they will be happy by acting miserably. When we reward them for acts of kindness, patience and love we are directing them towards a life of joy and contentment.
Most likely, you may find yourself like me, tempted to resort to bribery to manage your child’s behavior. Let me encourage you to take the proactive route with your children.
Take the time to be discerning as you parent, using the rewards you want to give your children to direct their behavior in life-giving ways.
It will make a remarkable impact in your experience of parenting and a significant difference in the life experience of your child!
This article first appeared at Hearts at Home.
I wish I had thought of it in that way over 30 years ago. Instead, I packed picked my tantrum-throwing son up off the floor at the grocery store, left the groceries behind, and went home. I said I’d never take him again with me.
With my second son, all was quite different. He would get in the cart-even if he complained a little-but no tantrums.