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  • Writer's picturedenmother

Rewards vs. Bribes: What's OK when it comes to parenting and what's not

If you are like me and you have studied many different parenting methods, then you have likely heard over and over what experts deem as law: do NOT reward expected behavior. This means do not give them a treat for pooping on the potty, do not reward them for cleaning their room, and so on and so forth. But I would like to flip that sentiment on its head. Is it OK to reward children’s behaviors? And if so, when?

Bribe vs. Reward

First of all, let’s make a distinction between a bribe and a reward. A bribe is something you use to manipulate your child into doing what you want. For instance, if you ever use an “if… then” statement, chances are it’s a bribe. “If you clean your room, then I’ll give you candy!” That’s a bribe. That is something I do not condone. But a reward is something different. A reward is something given for completing a new habit or behavior - and this, I am totally on board for and I’ll tell you why.


In researching how to change behaviors, create new habits or learn new skills, I have found that experts will oftentimes teach a few specific ways to achieve your goal: habit stacking, where you join new behaviors with old until they become second nature, creating routines, or rewarding yourself to name a few. Yes, we are taught as adults to reward ourselves every time we do something new or hard. Why? Because our mind is constantly seeking our own comfort and will very rarely venture out to do something new, scary or hard unless absolutely necessary. So, by rewarding ourselves immediately after completing a challenge, say a hard workout or a scary business call, our brain learns, “Oh I like this! I want to repeat this!”

Rewards in Parenting

We should be mindful about relying too heavily on rewards all the time in parenting… In fact, if it becomes a crutch you use to manipulate behavior, you will likely slip into bribe territory. But, it can be helpful when our kids are at the beginning of learning a new skill or behavior like mastering the potty, riding a bike or learning to take their dishes to the sink after a meal. Whenever our kids are trying something new, scary or hard a reward can help their brains want to stick with the new behavior and seek to repeat it. Rewards can be subtle, and they don’t have to come in the form of candy or prizes. They can be a day at the beach, just the two of you, or picking out a special book at the library or simply a tender hug that says, “I am so proud of you for trying this hard thing. Let’s celebrate.” I hope you give yourself grace about rewarding your kids, and give yourself a little reward for trying too!

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