I've read several answers where the advice is to give your kids some sort of prize (chocolates for sitting still, using the potty, etc)

Do you think this is a good practice? Should one try to encourage through words? Reasoning? Instead of bribing like Pavlov's dog

I'm about to be a father, so I'm not talking from experience here.

asked 26 Sep '09, 17:30

JJJ's gravatar image

accept rate: 12%

People use the word "bribing" but really it should be called reinforcement.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinforcement -The way it is described the concepts sound cold but it is the way we learn. There is a great deal of research on the concept.

Children unlike adults, especially very young ones are generally not mature enough to fully understand such abstract concepts such as "internal" rewards (being proud, doing it because it's the right thing to do), or future vs. immediate gratification. A reward system is just a concrete way to teach, if you do something good then something good will happen.

So your question, is reasoning through words better? In my experience it shouldn't be either or. It's a good idea to talk to your child and explain why they should or should not do something, but the reality is that they have limited capacity to truly understand.

I'm unable to find a good internet reference doing a quick search but there are many child development textbooks on the topic.


answered 26 Sep '09, 17:49

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Tammy ♦♦
accept rate: 18%

I think the question you are asking describes Skinnarian conditioning instead of Pavlovian. In general, I don't think it is really a good idea to "bribe" kids to do things. Psychologically this most commonly refers to positive reinforcement. The real problem with this is that it creates a extrinsic motivation for children to do something you want them to. The same idea comes from the common scenario, "Do this, or I'll punish you." Obviously this isn't positive reinforcement, but the avoidance of punishment, but as far as motivation is concerned, the outcome is closely the same.
The problem with extrinsic motivation is that when you stop the external response on the learned event, the learned behavior will eventually fade. So if you pay your child a dollar to clean his room, then when you stop paying him, or the dollar isn't enough of a motivator anymore (which is another possible outcome to positive reinforcement), then eventually stop cleaning his room. This is really the scenario you are creating with "bribery". To say that you shouldn't use it ever is a little far. It has it's uses, but I would do it sparingly as there are definite consequences just like anything else. This actually gets really complex as there are concepts like generalization of learned behaviors where someone will begin expect rewards for other related tasks, or naturalization where the motivator becomes ineffective.

Whether or not you should use it depends on what you want to get out of it. If you just want your child to keep his room clean, and don't want to teach him that he should want to keep it clean, then this may be the way to go. Personally, I would try and avoid this as much as possible though. There is an excellent article on giving kids an allowance vs. paying them for chores. I can't find it at the moment, but it is a good read and essentially discusses this topic.


answered 26 Sep '09, 22:03

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edited 02 Oct '09, 18:01


You know, Dan Pink did this great TED talk about the science of motivation (he was talking about motivation in the workplace), but I think there's a small bit of relevancy here. He said the science shows that extrinsic motivation works great for tasks that are "mechanical", but as soon as there's even a small amount of cognitive skills involved, then the extrinsic motivation is counter-productive! So that might imply that "bribing" is effective to get them to wash the dishes, but not to do their homework. The link: http://jeremysluyters.com/?p=78

(26 Sep '09, 23:32) Scott ♦♦

I can't find it at the moment, but there are actually studies which counter this concerning child development and chores. The idea that "bribing" a child to do chores instead of considering chores as part of being part of the family creates an environment where the child expects that to do any work, be it manual or otherwise, should have some sort of extrinsic reward attached to it. I haven't seen Dan Pink's talk on it. I'll have to watch it.

(27 Sep '09, 01:56) Kevin

I'll admit I'm a little skeptical, at the moment, as a quick search showed the Dan Pink background is in law and not in Psychology, behavioral or developmental. I'll still give it a look though.

(27 Sep '09, 02:01) Kevin

It really depends on the age of the child. A child that is 2-3 years old and potty training really does not understand intrisic motivation. That doesn't mean you would give up completely and not bother with verbal praise. Pairing both extrinsic and intrinsic sources of motivation is always a good bet.

(27 Sep '09, 13:24) Tammy ♦♦

Actually, that is not true, studies show that introducing extrinsic motivation in many, but not all, scenarios reduces intrinsic motivation. Actually, in your scenario, my initial guess would be that "bribing" with M&Ms to go to the bathroom would pair multiple extrinsic motivators together (the desire to not be wet from going to the bathroom, and receiving a reward from a parent) instead of paring intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. I'm not saying you shouldn't praise in this scenario or provide other forms or motivation, but the removal of that motivator will affect the learned behavior.

(27 Sep '09, 23:26) Kevin

I believe paired motivators are covered at least partially around the Rescorla and Wagnor theory of motivation first published in 1972 (I may be wrong on this citation, as its been a little while since I had to look that stuff up). Of course this idea depends on whether or not you subscribe to their theory which not all people do.

(27 Sep '09, 23:29) Kevin
showing 5 of 6 show 1 more comments

Since I'm new, I don't have enough rep to comment or even vote up, but when I saw the question, my first thought was of Alfie Kohn's book Unconditional Parenting. The article Wes links to is by Kohn.

Unconditional Parenting is an excellent book. Not a "how-to" -- from the amazon description: "explores the 'whys' not just the 'hows' of raising kids." Kohn backs up his writing with solid research.

Long answer to say: As Kevin wrote, intrinsic motivation is the way to go.


answered 28 Sep '09, 06:35

James's gravatar image

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I watched Pink's talk; one cannot equate infant/childhood behavior to the behavior required in the business world. Especially when you want to teach that child a new behavior. Let me explain.

When a child is hungry she 'knows' where her mouth is. She 'knows' where it is in that very special intrinsic way; its a survival instinct. She 'knows' who mommy is and where the food will likely come from. She knows to turn her head when she is rooting. She knows to cry when she is uncomfortable. Beyond satisfying those basic instincts a child needs to be taught. And this teaching/learning has to come from outside reinforcements.

If you asked a new born baby the candle puzzle would he know how to solve it? I don't think so. But when my 14 year old returns home from school I'll see if he can figure it out given he knows a lot about how the world works by now. With a small child you have to work within the paradigm: how to get to letter C from letter A. Infants do not, can not think out of the box for to do so, one will find a lot of kids falling out of their cribs. However, children do experiment - they will fall out of the crib only to find an uncomfortable repercussion. They will wipe food all over their faces or squirt the milk from the bottle onto their chins. Does this satisfy their need? No, eventually they'll get that bottle back into the mouth. When Henry was a new born he used to bang his head on the wall whenever I changed his diaper. I called the doctor and told him about this odd behavior; the doctor told me that the behavior will stop. He said that it doesn't feel good to the baby and there isn't any reward, so he'll stop. Perhaps if I gave the baby an M&M every time he banged his head he'd still be doing it. Ironically, Henry snowboards even though he got a concussion from a bad fall, but that has to do with behavior that he's learned, i.e. he enjoys the sport and so is willing to put up with the consequences. Snowboarding is its own reward system.

In order to get Henry to "go potty" we hung a chart on the wall in the bathroom. Every time there was a successful potty experience he received a sticker for his chart. It was very exciting for all of us to see Buzz Lightyear, Superman, and Batman expressing their joy at Henry's magnificent feat. Guess what? He became successful in using the potty. Today, Henry receives a weekly allowance for helping out around the house. Back to the potty now. When he 'splashes' on the seat he looses $1.00 from his allowance. No other motivation worked; he didn't care that I got wet when I sat down. Guess what? After a few weeks of receiving $5.00 instead of his usual $7.00 he has learned to clean up after himself.

I worked as a consultant on an annual contract. Guess what? In order to get that contract renewed year after year, my staff and I busted our behinds. 20 years later, the contract still gets signed annually. I'm in favor of rewards.


answered 01 Oct '09, 17:27

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user-319 (google)
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I wasn't suggesting Dan Pink was specifically applicable, just that it was an interesting relevant data point.

(01 Oct '09, 23:27) Scott ♦♦

I would like to think of it as positive reinforcement. You do A and you get B (you sit on the potty and you get an M&M). I think that children can thrive off of positive reinforcement and from experience I have seen it work. Now I don't think it always has to be a tangible reward and you can eventually fade the reinforcer to things such as verbal praise and then they will be just as happy when they get a "Good Job"!


answered 27 Sep '09, 06:47

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Melissa 1
accept rate: 15%

This type of bribery/reinforcement can certainly work, but you have to be careful that you are actually reinforcing behaviour and not just giving the kid an opportunity to get a treat.

Say you give Junior some M&M's every time he cleans his room. You see it as rewarding positive behaviour, but Junior may see it as an easy way to get M&M's. At some point you're going to want Junior to clean his room without giving him M&M's. How you have promoted the reward/bribe over the years will determine whether or not Junior stops doing it without that reward.

My kids were never "sticker kids" - giving them a sticker for positive behaviour only worked for a week or two. After that, they didn't care whether they got stickers or not, even when we equated larger rewards with collection of stickers (i.e. once you have ten stickers, we go out for dinner at a restaurant of your choosing). As a result, we tend to use praise alone a lot of the time - sometimes it works, sometimes not.

Having said that, my kids are now a little older (10 and 7) and getting an allowance. The amount of money they get is based on things they need to do during the week. Now that they have experienced the joy of buying a Wii or DS game with their own money, making sure they maximize the allowance they get is more important to them than skipping making their bed or brushing their teeth.


answered 01 Oct '09, 18:19

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It depends on age, but an important though is to be careful and not exchange actual praise and communication with things. If you give them candy, money, food, they will equate these things with praise.

Later, one day, you'll have a low-blood-sugar crazed-out kid in the checkout line in the supermarket and you give them a candy bar... bingo you just rewarded you kid for acting out...


answered 28 Sep '09, 06:42

TC's gravatar image

accept rate: 20%

I like rewarding my kids if they do good stuff. Example, if you eat all of your veggies you can have 3 m&m's or if you go potty on the toilet you can have a popsicle! Of course I don't do it everytime, just in the beginning of doing things. My daughter would have never tried certain veggies if I didn't give her m&m's. Now she loves them!


answered 01 Oct '09, 21:55

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Mommy trial and error
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Asked: 26 Sep '09, 17:30

Seen: 6,922 times

Last updated: 02 Oct '09, 18:01