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"I Won't Bribe My Kids!" Here's Why That's a Mistake

Challenging children need a boost for positive behavior. Rewards provide it.

In the completely misnamed book, “Good Boy, Fergus!” David Shannon introduces us to an Ineffective (pet) Parent who is a complete pushover. The titular character is an adorable puppy, Fergus. No matter how Fergus acts, he is rewarded with the words “Good boy, Fergus!” Fergus completely ignores his Ineffective Parent's directions. He sits when he is told to roll over, lies down when he is told to stand, and rolls over when he is told to sit. Each time, he gets a pat on the head, and the praise “Good boy Fergus!” Does anyone have any expectation that Fergus will be more obedient tomorrow? Will he think “My Ineffective Parent is so nice to me. Tomorrow, when she says to roll over, I’ll do it”?

Fergus begs for a meatball at the supper table. His Ineffective Parent says, “Don’t beg, Fergus.” He continues to beg. His Ineffective Parent says “Oh, all right!” and hands him a meatball. To make matters worse, the Ineffective Parent pats him on the head and says “Good boy, Fergus!” Do we think that when the Ineffective Parent has his very proper elderly boss over for a dinner party, Fergus will realize the stakes involved, and won’t beg?

Parenting Theory

In the Target System, the “T” stands for Theory. We need a theory as to how to change behavior. Behavior modification is that theory. (Read about creating a unified parenting theory here.) The “A” stands for “Analyzing Antecedents.” Antecedents are triggers that set up a behavior to occur. (Read Analyzing Antecedents and predicting behavior here.) The “R” stands for Rewards and Reinforcers. As Fergus demonstrates, behavior that’s rewarded is repeated.

When we’re talking about behaviorism in the context of parenting, we are mainly talking about operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, we’re associating a behavior we'd like to increase with a reward, and we are associating a behavior we’d like to decrease with a punishment. If Fergus did sit up when his parent said, “Sit up, Fergus!” and was rewarded with “Good boy, Fergus” and a dog biscuit, that would be effective operant conditioning. It’s very likely that Fergus will continue to obey that command.

Igor Yaruta/123/RF
Want to encourage positive behavior this school year? Try rewarding it!
Source: Igor Yaruta/123/RF

There are many spins on operant conditioning. One of them, the Premack Principle, goes like this: a behavior that has a higher probability of occurring may be used as a reinforcer for a behavior that has a lower probability of occurring. That’s the geek-speak version of Grandma’s rule: If you don’t eat your peas, you can’t have dessert. Since “eating dessert behavior” is a high-probability behavior (Chocolate ice cream! Yum! Yes, please.) and eating peas is a low-probability behavior (Peas? Yuck! Do I have to?), when Grandma says, “If you want to have chocolate ice cream, you must finish your peas,” the child is likely to comply.

Parenting Done Right: The Case of “Little Pea.”

In “Little Pea”, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, we are introduced to Little Pea, who likes to play with his pea pals, hear about Mama Pea’s childhood, and be flicked into the air off a spoon by Papa Pea. There’s one thing Little Pea doesn’t like – eating candy. When you’re a pea, candy is on the menu.

In a scene familiar to dinner tables across the world, Little Pea cajoles, begs, and bargains. “Do I have to eat my candy?” he asks. His Effective Parents are firm. If he wants to have his dessert, he must eat his candy. “How many pieces do I have to eat?” “Eat five pieces, and then you can have dessert.” Finally, Little Pea finishes all five pieces of candy. “Now can I have my dessert?” he asks. “Yes!” his Effective Parents reply. What’s dessert? Spinach, of course. Little Pea licks his dessert plate clean.

Tomorrow, when Little Pea’s parents tell him that he can’t go out to play until he completes his homework, how likely is Little Pea to obey? I think we can all agree, he’s likely to comply. He knows that his parents mean what they say, and they reward positive behavior.

Rewards Are Not Bribes!

When parents of challenging children come into my office, I get pushback when I talk about instituting a behavior modification system. What about unconditional love? A parent will ask me. We read “Good Boy, Fergus” and “Little Pea” and talk about our predictions for the characters. The fact is, Fergus is unlikely to change, but Little Pea is likely to grow up to be a productive citizen of the pea patch. Personally, I’d rather parent like Mama and Papa Pea. I'd rather be an Effective Parent.

Some parents resist behavior modification due to a moral objection — “Why should I bribe my child to listen to me? That’s what he’s supposed to do.” Well, yes. And adults are supposed to show up at work, but if they don’t get a paycheck for doing so, they probably won’t show up.

Rewards are not bribes. Bribes purchase a one-time action. They don’t teach skills. Let’s consider the example of bribing a judge. When someone bribes a judge, he is buying a one-time favorable decision. The judge’s brain and skill set don’t change. If he needs the judge to decide in his favor again, he needs to buy another decision with another bribe.

In “Good Boy, Fergus,” Fergus turns up his nose at dinner. His Ineffective Parent squirts whipped cream over the dinner, which Fergus happily consumes. That’s a bribe. Fergus hasn’t learned anything. Tomorrow, he’s going to demand the same bribe before eating. Many parents say, “I’ve tried rewards, they don’t work.” What they mean is “I’ve tried bribes, they don’t work.” That is correct. Bribes don’t create lasting change.

A reward, on the other hand, comes after a behavior and exists to reinforce that behavior. We eat chocolate because we are rewarded for doing so by the creamy deliciousness of each bite. We keep eating chocolate because behavior that’s rewarded is repeated!

In the next installment, we’re going to discuss how to directly tie rewards into teaching challenging children to be goal-directed, have self-control, and develop self-regulation skills. Remember, we’re hacking our children’s challenges into superpowers, and that’s a specialized form of parenting. (Read more about our overarching goal of hacking children’s challenges into superpowers here.)

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2019


Shannon, David (2006). Good Boy, Fergus. New York, NY: Blue Sky Press.

Krouse-Rosenthal, Amy (2005). Little Pea. San Francisco, California: Chronicle Books.

Premack, D. (1965) Reinforcement Theory. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Kyonka, Elizabeth. (2011). Premack Principle. In Goldstein, S. and Naglieri, J. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

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