Recently, I met a mother who proudly proclaimed that her five-year-old son helps her with housework. This piqued my curiosity because household chores like stacking dishes and folding laundry appear boring to children; therefore, they would be reluctant to do them. So, sure enough, you see... there was a catch. The mother eventually revealed that she bribes him to do it. When I explored further, she said that she either buys him toys or sweet treats as ‘rewards’ to help her around the house every now and then. This set me thinking. Is this a good practice? Is it recommended?
I did some research and also spoke to other professionals in the field to get their opinion, and discovered that there is a very thin line that separates a bribe, a reward and an incentive from each other. While some of those I interacted with were pretty much against any form of inducement, proponents of the behaviourist school of thought argue that rewards are good, but bribes are not. Let us first understand the difference.
- A bribe is something that is offered to cajole or influence a child to undertake a task or to put an end to bad behaviour. It is often offered in desperation, in the heat of the moment.
- A reward is something that is given in appreciation after achieving the desired goal, in recognition of achievement or commendable behaviour.
- An incentive is something that is agreed upon beforehand to motivate a child to put in his best.
While reward and incentive focus on the child's effort, bribe highlights the parents frustration to get the desired result. Also, the act of bribing implies to the child that the expected behaviour or completion of a task is a favour done to the parent. However, the bottom line is, all of them account for external motivation.
When a child does an activity to receive an incentive or a gift, he usually tries to do it quickly to be able to lay his hands on the gift as early as possible. As a result, the child may not involve himself in the process, missing out on the learning experience.
The best way to motivate a child would be to trigger his interest in doing the desired activity. This would make the child get involved in the process, help him learn, and teach him to accept the favourable or unfavourable outcome of his actions. — *Dr Ravi Samuel
The pitfalls of bribes
While many experts argue that the results of bribery are short-lived but rewards can help with long-term behaviour modification, I beg to differ. When it comes to children, I strongly believe that any form of material benefit, regardless of what it is labelled, can only lead to short-term gains. However, non-instructive reflection, combined with unconditional positive regard goes a long way in encouraging self-regulation towards desirable behaviour.
In order to have long-lasting, sustainable behaviour change that is positive and desirable, an individual requires intrinsic motivation. So long as a bribe is in the offing, the expected behaviour may be achievable. But, the moment it is withdrawn, the behaviour would regress to the habituated undesirable pattern. By far, I think this is the strongest argument against bribing our children. The psychological reasons behind this are as follows:
- Bribes communicate a negative message: When you bribe your child to do something, he begins to believe that the task he is being asked to do lacks intrinsic value. As a result, he will expect to be ‘paid’ or compensated every time something is expected of him. This can rob him of the joy of doing many tasks because his focus remains on the material benefit, and he just cannot get involved in or develop passion about whatever he is doing.
- Bribes become habitual: The most dangerous form of parental bribery is when you reward your toddler for doing the basic things that are expected of her. For example, if you offer her sweet treats for having a bath or brushing her teeth, you are setting yourself (and your toddler) up for disaster in the future. She will never want to do even the essential activities of daily living without being rewarded each time. Imagine your toddler growing up into an adult who expects to be bribed just to groom herself!
- Bribes can be demotivating: When a child comes to believe that he must do something only if there is a pay-off, he will slowly lose the motivation to take the initiative and the desire to explore ventures that do not promise any material benefit. Gradually, he will begin to lose interest in doing even those things that once appealed to him.
- Bribes may lead to taking shortcuts and poor performance: When the focus shifts to material benefits, your toddler will try to cut the process short as much as possible. She will want to reach the finish line without running the race, so to speak. In the long run, this encourages taking shortcuts, and leads to poorer performance. The child doesn’t derive any satisfaction from putting in effort and achieving her goals. Rather, it becomes all about ‘winning’, or receiving the bribe.
Even though there are so many arguments in favour of intrinsic motivation and doing away with bribery, the fact remains that we are all human, and we will find ourselves in situations where we end up resorting to dangling the carrot. There is nothing wrong with that; so, forgive yourself if you have done this before. Just remember that as long as these instances are few and far between, you are safe. In addition, research shows that unexpected rewards that follow desirable behaviour (perhaps as a celebratory gesture) can actually have a positive impact on a child’s self-esteem. For instance, offering to buy a toddler a toy to divert him from a terrible tantrum would be bribery, but buying him a toy for being on his best behaviour can be reinforcing and may encourage him to continue behaving well. The important thing is to maintain perspective, and be aware of when you might be unknowingly slipping into the bribery mode.
Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills (PTUK)
*Dr Ravi Samuel is one of Chennai's eminent psychotherapists who offers mental health therapy through his URClinic.
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