I Don't Want to Bribe My Child!

Very often when discussing reinforcement, we are asked: "but isn't that bribery?"  We also meet with many parents who are working to change some challenging behaviors and express to us that they do not want to "bribe" their child into behaving differently.

So, let's discuss bribery!

First, if we look at the technical definition of bribery, it is defined as providing benefits (e.g. money) to influence the opinions or behavior of someone in an official or trusted position.  In other words, somehow paying someone to engage in an illegal activity.  Needless to say, we would never encourage you to pay your child to engage in illegal activity ;)

What we do encourage is that you reinforce appropriate, functional, and desired behavior!

What's the difference?  Glad you asked!

Reinforcement is anything that follows a behavior making it more likely to occur again.  So, if your child eats his broccoli at dinner and you give him a high-five or an additional 5 minutes of story time later, AND that results in an increase in his broccoli-eating behavior, then you have reinforced it.  This clearly has nothing to do with the definition of bribery!

Now, to be fair, we understand that the technical definition of bribery is probably not what most parents are thinking about when they ask us that question.  Most parents are probably thinking: "but I don't want my child to only do things when I offer him something"  Fair enough.

Let's think about how we as adults behave.  For those of us who work in the professional world, what do we get at the end of each biweekly or monthly period?  A paycheck!  So, we engage in the behavior of going to work and in exchange we get paid.  Ask yourself, would you still work hard for 40 hours a week if you did not receive a paycheck?  Of course there are some of us in the world (like our Bridge Kids of New York team!) who are lucky enough to do work we love!  If we love our jobs, would we continue to work without getting paid?  Maybe.  But, would we continue to work the same number of hours at the same quality as we do when we receive payment?  Realistically, probably not.

Here's another example.  You decide to try out a new hair salon.  When you walk out of the salon with your new 'do, several people compliment you and tell you your hair looks fabulous.  In the future, you go back to that same hair salon.  What happened here?  Well, you tried a new hair salon and that behavior was reinforced through compliments, and your behavior of using that new hair salon was increased.

So what's our point here?  The point is that reinforcement is occurring all around us (and to our behavior!) all the time, whether or not we are conscious of it!  The principles of reinforcement apply to all of us!  When we understand how reinforcement works, we can then use it to modify behavior and help people learn.

If our behavior, as adults, is increased or maintained by reinforcement, why would we expect anything different from our children?  This is simply the nature of learning and behavior--there is no avoiding reinforcement!  Remember that if your child is currently engaging in undesired behavior, something is reinforcing it--reinforcement is already at work!  Are there some behaviors we engage in because the activity itself is enjoyable or provides some type of input?  Of course!  Is that the case with all of the behaviors we engage in?  Certainly not!  We generally engage in activities we do not want to engage in because of reinforcement (e.g. a paycheck) or avoidance of punishment (e.g. being fired).  Rather than focusing on the use of punishment when helping your child learn, we suggest that you focus on reinforcement (for many reasons--but that's an entirely different blog post!)

So, to return to the original question: "but isn't that bribery?"  No.  Unless you are paying your child to engage in illegal activity, it is not bribery.  If your child engages in the behavior you want to see and you deliver something (e.g. praise, a high-five, a special treat, removal from an activity he does not like) that increases the behavior, you are using reinforcement.  Reinforcement is naturally occurring all the time and we live in a society that operates under systems of reinforcement (e.g. pay checks) and punishment (e.g. speeding tickets).  Not to mention that reinforcement and punishment are always occurring whether or not we are consciously applying them.  So, by utilizing reinforcement, you are applying a scientifically-proven approach to help your child learn and be successful--which is pretty far from the effects of bribery! :)

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