Rewards v/s Bribes: What works better?

Rewards v/s Bribes: What works better?

When managing difficult behavior in children there are lots of parenting strategies one may employ. However, there is one sure shot strategy that all of us as parents have resorted to every now and then and it has often worked. That strategy is rewarding good behavior. This strategy is a part of what we call positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement by definition is the process of encouraging or establishing a pattern of behavior by offering a reward when the behavior is exhibited. It is often confusing as to what is the difference between rewards and bribes. Let us understand which one is better in the long run and why.


Rewarding is a common positive reinforcement that is often used in parenting strategies when dealing with difficult behavior. When it comes to discipline, it works the most. When rewarding, the focus is on motivating the child to continue the ‘good behavior’ as opposed to problematic behavior. Rewards are given ahead of time so your child knows what to expect. It lets them know that parents are the ultimate decision-makers and that some rules are just non-negotiable.


Bribes help to manage stressful situations and outweigh any benefit in the long term. They are a short-term solution creating a long-term problem. Additionally, they teach children that they can get anything they want by acting out.

Rewards v/s Bribes

Both bribes and rewards work on the principle of giving something in exchange for the wanted behavior, but the way it is given is different. Bribes cannot be planned ahead of time like rewards can and generally happen when you are in the middle of problem behavior. For example, you’re in a grocery store and your child decides to have a complete meltdown. To avert disaster, you offer to buy her candy if she’ll stop the tantrum and are good.

  1. Rewards are earned for good behavior; bribes are offered to avoid bad behavior.                      Rewards are offered to encourage behavior that you’d like to see your child continue, like studying or taking care of a pet, those are rewards. If the same offer is made for not doing certain things, like not throwing a tantrum or speaking rudely then it is a bribe.
  2. Rewards make up good habits; bribes make your child powerful.
    Rewards are not negotiable. They are decided by the parent. So when you say “If you do your chore…” it’s a reward. If a child says, “If I finish my homework, then I want….., it’s a bribe. A bribe is like extorting compensation for something kids should do in the first place.
  3. Rewards are a good parenting tool; bribes are not.
    Once you start with bribing then it will be hard to break the cycle. Children are smarter than you think and they quickly understand “this for that” arrangement. You will always end up bargaining with them about every chore and activity.

Using rewards effectively

  • Use rewards at the right time

The rewards need to be immediate enough to be enticing and reachable. Children do better when promised immediately before a task that they would be rewarded. If there is too much of a delay, they don’t notice it.

  • Understand loss aversion

Studies have found that a person’s aversion to losing something they already have is twice as powerful as the satisfaction they feel when acquiring something new. Children are more likely to work harder to protect privileges they already have than they are to get more.

  • Set clear and realistic expectations

When using rewards, make sure that the rewards and behavioral expectations are clear. It is important to ensure to follow through. Children won’t trust the system if your plans are vague and inconsistent. Also, ensure that your expectations for your child are realistic. Unrealistic expectations will impact your relationship with your child negatively. Read this article on positive parenting to understand more.

  • Know your child

Observe and get to know your child. Every child gets motivated by different things. Some children might be motivated by spending time with parents or friends or monetary rewards while others are interested in screen time or games. Sometimes even stickers and praises work. Find out what is it that will work for you.

  • Look at the bigger picture

Using rewards should aim at encouraging a positive behavior or stopping a bad habit. The goal should be to help your child to progress to making their own decision without needing the reward. The goal is to avoid long-term dependence on rewards and to encourage self-rewarding habits. You can read more here.


As parents, most of us may resort to bribing every now and then. It is tempting and especially in the middle of a crisis, it may seem like the easier way out. But let us keep reminding ourselves that what is not acceptable to us as adults is usually not healthy for children either. Lastly, remember how good it feels when you get a raise, a promotion or a good appraisal? Does that motivate you to work harder? That is what rewards do. And that’s exactly what we are aiming for our kids too!

Sayee Deshpande
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