The Difference Between a Bribe and Positive Reinforcement

“First finish your vegetables, then you can have dessert.”  Is this statement, made nightly around dinner tables across the globe, a bribe or a promise of positive reinforcement?  Does it matter, as long as it works?

The answer lies in the timing.  Take the following example:

Before entering the food store, a mother tells her son, “Timmy, if you stay with me and listen in the store, you can get ice cream.”  Timmy wants ice cream, so he stays with his mom and listens to her directions.  He gets to pick out his favorite fudge pops and eats one on the way home.   

Another mom goes to the store with her daughter.  As soon as they walk in, Annie runs away and nearly knocks over a display of lemons.  Her mom tells her to come back, but Annie ignores her.  Her mom says, “Do you want ice cream? Then you need to stay with me and listen.”  Annie wants ice cream, so she listens to her mom.  She gets to pick out her favorite ice cream cones and eats one on the way home.   

Both children ended up listening to their mothers and got rewarded.  However, Timmy was positively reinforced, while Annie was bribed.  Does this distinction matter?  Absolutely.

Timmy’s mother offered him ice cream in return for appropriate behavior, whereas Annie’s mom offered her ice cream once she was already engaging in inappropriate behavior.  Timmy learned that if he does what he is supposed to do, he earns something he wants.  Annie learned that when she does something she ISN’T supposed to do, she gets offered something she wants.  

The key to positive reinforcement is being proactive and anticipating situations which may prove to be challenging for your child.  If you cross your fingers and hope your daughter behaves well in church or at a birthday party, you run the risk of needing to bribe her to sit quietly or to not put her fingers in cousin Johnny’s cake.  Instead, prepare her for the situation beforehand and enlist the power of positive reinforcement.  

For example, if you know the vegetables you’re serving with dinner are more likely to be eaten by the dog than by your son, tell him BEFORE dinner that he can have dessert if he eats them.  By employing positive reinforcement instead of bribery, he will learn to eat his vegetables in order to get dessert, instead of learning that once he throws them on the floor, you offer him dessert in desperation.