Episode 5 –
Bribes vs. Positive Reinforcement
“Anticipate moments that will be challenging and discuss them with your child ahead of time”
In the heat of the moment have you accidentally bribed your child to behave? We’ve all done it and will likely do it again! Sharon shares the difference between bribery and positive reinforcement in this episode of the Raiseology Podcast. Listen in to hear how she would use positive reinforcement to change behavior in her toddler.
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Episode 2 Episode 2 of the Raiseology Podcast – find it here!
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Sharon: So today I’d like to talk about what the difference is between bribing your child and positive reinforcement. And I think this is a really interesting topic because in all of the positive discipline books that I read and in all of the behavior modification talks that I’ve been to or read about, they all say that bribing is not good and we should avoid bribing our children. But then flip to the idea that positive reinforcement is really important and more important than negative reinforcement in changing behavior. And so the question really becomes, well, what’s the difference? And as I work with more and more parents on changing behavior, I think the parents are not fully aware or understanding of the difference between bribery and positive reinforcement. So I figured I would do an episode to talk about that and hopefully provide some clarification on that.
So first a bribe is something that is offered and given before a behavior is changed and so you are bribing your child to change their behavior. The problem with this is that most often bribes are offered during moments of frustration, during the times when our children are not listening and we’re trying to get them to listen. And so what that teaches them is that if they behave in a way that is not ideal and they frustrate us, we will eventually lose our patience, offer them some sort of a bribe, and then they will maybe change their behavior. And sometimes when they’re offered the reward, before they changed their behavior, then they no longer have the motivation to change their behavior. And so that’s a whole different situation. But positive reinforcement on the other hand is a reward that is offered on the condition that the behavior is changed. And so you are offering a conditional reward where when you change your behavior, then you will receive this reward. And the idea is that once they have exhibited the desirable behavior, they are rewarded for that behavior and that this is what perpetuates their desire and motivation to have that positive behavior again in the future.
And it’s important to note that this positive reinforcement for any given behavior is a short term positive reinforcement. And I’m going to give you a real life example in just a couple of moments, but it is not a reward that is continuously given for the same behavior because that would make basically all behaviors contingent on reward. And we know that that’s not something that we are recommending that you do or start with your children, right? So your five-year-old no longer gets a reward every time they use the bathroom, even if it is the system that you used to reinforce that behavior when they were two and a half or three.
So let’s talk about a real life example. In general, there are many, many toddlers who give parents a hard time getting into their car seat. Sometimes it happens even in younger ages or when a toddler sees their older siblings in a booster seat and wants to be in a similar seat. Occasionally they are uncomfortable about something in their car seat and it may take us some time to figure out what really is going on. But we know as parents that getting into their car seat is a non-negotiable factor. And so we don’t allow the option of not getting into the car seat but sometimes have quite a fight getting them into the car seat. And you can imagine how in that moment of frustration, you’re more likely to react in a way that isn’t how you wanted to react. So let’s talk about how to distinguish between using bribery versus positive reinforcement in this specific situation. So there are two situations where I could see getting into the car seat, ending in a bribe. And the first is when you’re in that heat of frustration, you’re trying to get your child into the car seat, you have somewhere you have to be and they are giving you a hard time and you say, here’s my phone, just get into the car seat, right? That is a bribe because you are offering the reward before they do what you say and the other instance where I still think of it as a bribe even though you’re offering award after is when you’re in that heat of frustration and you say, if you just get into your car seat, I’ll give you my phone. Right? So in both situations you’re child has learned that it is the heat of the moment, the frustration, the whining, the crying, whatever fighting mechanism they used to not get into the car seat that eventually gave them a reward and children are way smarter than we give them credit for and they do put two and two together very often here. And you will find that in this specific situation, even if you gave the reward after they behaved, instead of teaching them that you need to behave nicely or make good choices in order to be rewarded, what you have really taught them in this moment is that one mommy is frustrated and you do things that frustrate mommy, you will get a reward. And certainly that is not what we want to teach them. I’m sure that it’s not a situation that you want to continue over and over again and it’s certainly not something that you’ve done on purpose. We have all been there. I have done this myself, right?
If you asked me the solution is to anticipate moments that will be challenging and discuss them with your child ahead of time and so in my car seat example, what I did with my daughter was I said, okay, she gives me a hard time every time we get into the car seat, so I, as the adult, should be able to anticipate that this is likely going to happen again the next time we get into the car seat and so rather than bribe her in the moment and say, Oh, you know, I’m so frustrated if you just get in your car seat, I’ll give you my phone. I decided that I was going to tell her ahead of time how I expect her to behave and then reward her at the end of that experience if she behaved the way that I expected her to behave. So the way that went down in my house was I know that she really likes to listen to certain music on my phone and our ride to school is about three or four minutes long. And so I said to her, you know what? When you get in the car seat nicely and we don’t have to fight about it, I will give you my phone and play the music that you want to listen to you. Now the trick here is she really only gets the music when the transition to the car seat is seamless and so it becomes a little bit challenging for some parents because they feel that they have offered this reward and they cannot Or they don’t want to then disappoint their children and not give the reward. And I would say that when it comes to positive reinforcement, this is one of the main downfalls that a lot of parents have and why it seems to not work for a lot of parents. Right? And if you find that you are having trouble with this, I want you to remember what we talked about in the episode of finding your why and really remember what it is that your true end goal is here and why you are choosing to stay firm and what it is that you want this experience to teach your children. I will link to that episode in the show notes in case you guys missed it. Okay, so back to the car seat example. So you can imagine that maybe the first time that I went through this with my daughter and we got into the car seat, she still gave me a hard time and so I did not give her the music and I’m sure she was disappointed and of course she was crying and whining about it. But that was our deal. Our deal was when she can do it without crying, she will get the music. And so in the afternoon when I went to pick her up from school, I reminded her of our arrangement and how if she would get into the car seat without crying, she could use the phone to play her music. We put her in the car seat and she was very calm and went into the car seat in a really nice way. And so as a result, she was able to now get the reward that we discussed. Now there are a lot of people out there that criticized the idea of reward and they say, well, if you reward your children for things that they should be doing anyway, then we will have a society of people that require awards for everything. And the truth is that I don’t disagree with that. I think that we should not reward our children for everything and every time. But rewards are a powerful way to reinforce good behavior and make changes in behavior. And so I have used this technique or this tool in order to change behavior and use the reward in a very short term fashion. And so what happens is the first two or three times that I was able to get my daughter in her car seat without whining or crying, she was able to listen to the music. And then you stretch it, right? So now it becomes something that is more habitual for her. She no longer fights the car seat in the same way, and so it becomes easier to get her in the car seat without the reward. And so fading the reward is something that is important to pay attention to and the best way to do that is to start increasing the intervals between the rewards for a prolonged period of good behavior. Right? And so let’s say she gets into the car seat and she does not whine or cry or make a fuss about it, and you’ve given her the reward a few times in a row. Now you can tell her, okay, great, you’ve learned this new skill in the future. If you don’t whine or cry when you get in the car seat for two days, then you will get the reward.
And I think it’s also important to remember that you should encourage her, even if you’re not giving her the phone for the ride, that you can still encourage her to continue with that behavior by paying attention when the behavior is done the way that you want it to. So for example, for three or four days maybe I gave the reward every time we got into the car seat and then I observed as she developed her new habit. But when the behavior was good and she got into the car seat beautifully, I may have said, you know what? You did a great job. I was really happy with the choice you made to get into the car seat so beautifully. And then if she asks for a reward, you say, let’s see how you get into the car seat again tomorrow. And if you continue to do such a great job, then of course we will give you a reward. And over time you simply stretch out the interval between rewards to the point where it becomes irrelevant and there’s no real asking for the reward because it’s not a part of the equation any longer. You can appreciate that this is something that she is not rewarded for every time this is now a year later, I no longer reward her for getting into her car seat. It’s the same idea as you know, rewarding potty training. The idea is that the reinforcement for getting the potty training accomplished is short term. My daughter no longer gets a sticker every time she poops on the potty. Right. She did in the beginning and it definitely reinforced the behavior and helped her change the behavior and get excited about potty training. But it no longer is something that is a factor in whether or not she poops on the potty. If she asks occasionally for sicker after she pooped in the Potty, I may give her one, but I remind her that it’s not because she pooped on the potty, but because she has been doing good listening or whatever it is that I’m trying to encourage her to do at that moment. And so the main difference really between the bribe and positive reinforcement is the situation in which your offering it. If you’re offering the reward during a moment of frustration and it is out of a lack of patients that you are giving into your child, then that is really considered a bribe. But if you can anticipate certain things that your children are going to do and discuss it with them and try to sort of head them off before they happen, then that can be considered positive reinforcement.
And if you’re listening to this and you’re realizing that, oh man, yesterday I bribed my child to do x, y, and Z. I don’t want you to feel guilty about it. I want you to understand that this is something that happens and like I mentioned before, we’ve all done it and we all occasionally do it. It is a natural thing that occurs. The point of this podcast is really to increase your awareness of it so that maybe it will prevent you from doing it as often as you might, and hopefully it will give you the tools to figure out how to handle certain situations that you’re dealing with on a repetitive basis.
That brings us to the end of this episode of the Raiseology podcast. I hope you enjoyed listening. I’d like to invite all of you listening to join us in the resolve the parenting facebook group where we continue the conversation and many others from this podcast and hopefully answer some questions that you guys might have. I look forward to seeing you there.
Outro: Thanks for listening to the Raiseology Podcast head over to www.Raiseology.com, where you’ll find plenty of, you’ve got this resources for parents and any links or tools mentioned in today’s show. Be sure to hit subscribe on your podcatcher so that you can listen to the next episode the minute it’s out. Until next time, have an empowered week.
Meet Your Mentor
Sharon is a general pediatrician, loving wife and mother to 4 daughters.
After a decade of practicing general pediatrics and working with families, she realized there often wasn’t enough time while tending to children’s medical needs to help parents in the way that would be most helpful in shaping their children’s futures.
The Raiseology Program was developed to teach parents how to raise their children with the love and authority necessary to promote resilience and responsibility.
Sharon’s experience with hundreds of families as well as her own help her meet you where you are on your parenting journey to help you make it what you want it to be.
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