Reward (Not Bribe) Your Child for Good Behavior

6 do's and don'ts of motivating your kid with incentives.
Does bribing children for good behavior really work? Many parents worry that bribery will backfire in a big way, but child experts say that an effective reward system can actually motivate kids if done right.

"I don't think there is a problem with a small reward as positive reinforcement," says Dr. Herschel Lessin, medical director of the Children's Medical Group and a pediatrician at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The key is to make sure you use rewards wisely.

Rewarding Rule #1:

Reward. Don't bribe.

There's a difference between bribery (manipulating kids to get them to cooperate) and reward (payoff earned for the right behavior). Bribery teaches children look for "what's in it for me?" instead of helping them become self-motivated.

So when does a reward become a bribe? One question you can ask yourself is: Has my child demonstrated extraordinary cooperation or completed an unpleasant task without complaints? If you answer yes, a reward might be appropriate. The idea is not to "reward" a child for not misbehaving, but rather use reward to reinforce her good behavior. For instance, buying a screaming child a new toy to quiet her is bribery. However, if your child has a lot of difficulty reading but struggles through it, giving her the toy will help motivate her.

Rewarding Rule #2:

Reward after the fact, not before.

For example, once the room is cleaned up, reward your child with a trip to the playground. It is okay to tell him about the reward beforehand. "As soon as your room is clean, we can go to the playground." A reward, as opposed to a bribe, is after the fact. So never give it to him before he has completed the task.

Rewarding Rule #3:

Don't delay the reward.

If you promise to give a reward tomorrow for something your child does today, she'll forget to connect it to her good behavior, or you may forget to give it to her.

Rewarding Rule #4:

Not all rewards should be material.

Balance material rewards with nonmaterial ones, such as a trip to the park, extra play time and reading his favorite book to him. "You can motivate a child by offering a reward or a low-cost present for good behavior," says Cathryn Galanter, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, in New York City.

Rewarding Rule #5:

Make the reward fit the situation.

You want to make sure that the rewards match the behavior: If your child is cooperative at bedtime, an extra story would be a more appropriate reward, not a new toy.

Rewarding Rule #6:

Don't overdo it.

If you offer rewards for every little accomplishment, your child may come to expect a special treat everytime she does something you ask. Most of the time, something as simple as a compliment is often reward enough. Praise and attention are highly rewarding for young children, as is special time with a parent, notes Dr. Lessin, "the biggest reward a parent can give is approval."

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