Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


When Is a Child's Reward Actually a Bribe?

Reinforcing motivation and self-esteem versus manipulative behavior.

Key points

  • When your child is emotionally struggling, rewards and bribes can be confused.
  • Bribes can undermine a child's intrinsic motivation and lead to entitlement or manipulative behavior.
  • Rewards encourage the growth of planned-out behaviors, while bribes are persuasions that lower motivation and increase manipulation.

My new counseling client, Sara, tearfully said to me, "My mind is spinning. My mother keeps telling me I'm bribing Kim, my nine-year-old daughter. I tried looking this up, and it seems that a reward and a bribe are two different approaches to motivating my daughter's behavior. I don't want to be bribing Kimmy. I worry that I am a bad mother because it seems like it is easy to fall into this trap. What is the difference between bribing and rewarding a child?"

I can almost guarantee that as you are reading this post, parents worldwide, especially in these current times when instant gratification runs rampant, are struggling with the reward vs. bribe quandary presented by Sara. That's because while positive reinforcement is associated with rewards–verbal and nonverbal–parents sometimes confuse “rewarding” with“bribing” or “spoiling.”

The Difference Between a Bribe and a Reward

Rewards and bribes for kids can often be confused. My book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, describes what makes positive reinforcement a reward and how it differs from bribery. The rest of this post will provide some key points for parents to be able to tell the difference. The examples below consist of school-age kids, but I have seen bribes between parents and "kids" from 4 to 44 years old. One parent, for example, recently learned—the hard way—that buying their adult child a new car did nothing to stop their "disrespectful comments and lack of appreciation."

Here are the key differences between rewards and bribes.

Timing Is Everything When It Comes to Rewards

A reward is something that is given to a child after they have completed a task or exhibited positive behavior. It is meant to reinforce the behavior and encourage the child to repeat it in the future. A reward is typically pre-established and agreed upon between the parent or caregiver and the child before the behavior occurs. For example, a parent may promise to let their child have some screentime or a special dessert such as ice cream after they finish their homework or a chore at home.

Bribes Are Spontaneous Attempts to Influence Behavior

On the other hand, a bribe is a persuasion attempt offered to a child in advance—or during a child's negative behavior—to influence their behavior or get them to do something they might not want to do. Bribes are usually offered on the spot and are not pre-established. For example, a parent may offer their child candy to stop throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. How often have we all seen that scenario play out?

If offered in advance, a bribe is a parent persuading the child to do what they don't want to do. For example, you bribe your child to clean their room. They grumble but do it to get the bribe reward—money, screentime, or some other privilege. Yes, the child may be successfully persuaded by you to clean their room. But they are also induced to leave their room messy all over again, so they can be repeatedly bribed into cleaning it. Any natural motivation goes out the window when kids are bribed by parents. You are unwittingly training them to manipulate you into bribing them again. It is an unhealthy, coercive cycle.

The Story of Janet and Ben

Janet, the mother of seven-year-old Ben, asked me, “Aren’t I just setting Ben up to expect rewards for doing what he should be doing anyway? Won’t he get spoiled or expect me to give him rewards to bribe him all the time?”

This is a great question and one I hear quite a bit from parents of kids who are defiant and struggle in other ways to manage their emotions. I asked Janet to think about herself for a moment (something we all, stressed-out parents, need to be reminded to do). Here is the exchange I had with Janet:

Dr. Jeff: “I see you have your gym bag with you. Are you working out at the gym?”

Janet: “Yes, it’s my one outlet. I try to go four times a week, at least.”

Dr. Jeff: “So you go and work hard because it helps your stress level?”

Janet: “Yes, I guess so.”

Dr. Jeff: “And I recall you telling me your weight was important to you. So what about keeping your weight down?”

Janet: “Well, of course, that’s one of the biggest reasons I work out.”

Dr. Jeff: “So you could say that going to the gym is good for you because it helps your stress level and helps you keep your weight down.”

Janet: “Absolutely. It’s worth the effort.”

Dr. Jeff: “So you could say that you’re rewarded for your effort. Big difference from someone trying to push and bribe you to go.”

Janet: “I see what you’re saying. My stressing less and looking trimmer are my positive reinforcements. I’m getting committed to being rewarded, just the adult version.”

Janet got my point exactly. In the world of work, most people go to their jobs every day (either in person or online), show up on time, work hard, and are rewarded, not bribed or spoiled, by a paycheck. They earn it for all their hard work. And, wherever you are, if you are kind to others, you are usually rewarded when their kindness is offered back to you. The common theme is that these “rewards” feel good and increase the chances that you will continue to choose these positive behaviors. These are examples of positive reinforcement in action.

Don't Underestimate Your Praise as a Reward

Rewards for kids of any age don’t always have to be, nor should they always be, the nonverbal or material kind. The most powerful kind of reward a parent has to offer is simple, doesn’t cost anything, and is always at hand: their verbal praise. Think also about its power and value to withstand the test of time; I have yet to meet any adult who complains that their parents gave them too much encouragement and praise during childhood.

The Bottom Line

Rewards are a positive consequence for your child's behavior that has already occurred. You and your child can plan out agreed-upon rewards (or they can be a surprise) to boost their healthy motivation. Bribes, however, are persuasion-based offers of something in advance of the moment to stop your child's current negative behaviors. Rewards are meant to encourage motivation and reinforce positive behavior. Bribes, on the other hand, can undermine a child's intrinsic motivation and lead to entitlement or manipulative behavior.


Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (3rd Ed.) Hachette Go Books, New York, NY.

Kaitlyn Eck, Colleen Delaney, Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Karla Shelnutt, Melissa Olfert, How Parents Can Help Kids Make Healthy Choices: Advice from Children (P04-006-19), Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 3, Issue Supplement_1, June 2019, nzz051.P04–006–19,

Patty Leijten, Frances Gardner, G.J. Melendez-Torres, Jolien van Aar, Judy Hutchings, Susanne Schulz, Wendy Knerr, Geertjan Overbeek, Meta-Analyses: Key Parenting Program Components for Disruptive Child Behavior, (2019). Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry,
Volume 58, Issue 2, ISSN 0890-8567,

More from Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today