Parents give money to their children for doing chores and M&Ms to toddlers who sit on the potty. Teachers give free time to students who complete their work, and prizes to those who behave in class. Is this practice appropriate?
A reward or a bribe?
Critics of behavioral modification would have us believe that it is not appropriate at all. Parents and teachers are chided for bribing children, and made to feel guilty for using techniques that work. But it is not only parents and teachers who use this sort of motivation. Every day, employers pay hundreds of people to complete necessary tasks, and offer bonuses and awards for exceptional performance. Corporations offer millions of dollars in cash and prizes to outstanding athletes and sports teams. Is this bribery?
It seems that many people are unaware of the differences between bribes and rewards. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines a bribe as “anything, especially money, given or promised to induce a person to do something illegal or wrong.” Is using the potty wrong? Illegal? Not to my knowledge. Neither is completing homework and chores, or behaving appropriately in class. The definition for a reward is, “Something given in return for good…or for service or merit.”
Looking at the definition, these two should never be confused. They are at opposite ends of a continuum. Bribes encourage bad or illegal behavior. Rewards are the exact opposite. A second key difference is that bribes are given BEFORE the behavior is to take place. For the sake of example, let us put aside the first contrast, (as difficult as it is to overlook) and focus on the timing. A teacher might say, “We can end class early today, but that means tomorrow you’ll need to work extra hard.” Or a parent, “I’ll give you an ice cream now if you’ll behave while we are in the doctor’s office.” These might be considered bribes because they are offered before the behavior. Critics are correct that this practice rarely works. If the positive reinforcement precedes the behavior, there is no recourse if the children don’t hold up their end of the bargain. What would the teacher do if the students didn’t work extra hard the following day? They were already awarded the free time. Why should the child behave in the office? He already got his ice cream.
Rewards, on the other hand, are given AFTER the behavior. Using the examples above, the teacher can let the class know that if they work extra hard today, they can have additional free-time tomorrow. The parent can reward the child with ice cream after he has behaved well in the doctor’s office. That way, if the children do not follow through with appropriate behavior, they do not receive the reward.
Using rewards effectively can produce wonderful results. Personal experience has shown this in both the classroom and with my own children. The next time you are cautioned about bribing the children in your care, break out the dictionary and remind yourself of the differences between a bribe and a reward.