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The Real Reward
Positive reinforcement is great, but if children are often rewarded (bribed) for doing things, they’ll start to feel like they deserve the reward every time.

Do those of you with children recall the potty training days, or have you attempted to block them forever from your memory? If you followed parenting books, you likely stuck a chart to your fridge, and dotted it with happy faces every time your toddler sat on the potty and completed his or her assignment. You may even have had a stash of M&Ms to hand out in especially desperate cases.

Positive reinforcement, after all, is a good motivator for children. We hug them when they’re good and sweet, and we give them a treat when they’ve been patient and haven’t complained as we dragged them through the grocery store or to doctors’ appointments.

Yet after my column last week, in which I wrote about government programs that bribe people to do what they should be doing anyway, I started wondering about our parenting techniques, too. Positive reinforcement is great, but what about those M&Ms? Hugging them for being patient is wonderful, but are we always going to buy them a Happy Meal for behaving appropriately? And what about as they grow older? Will we pay them for good grades, too?

The problem with bribery is that children start to feel like they deserve the reward every time they do it. Take the reward away, and they may stop the behaviour. Even worse, when you pay for something, you give the impression that this thing is not fun or rewarding in and of itself. So if you pay for good grades, you tell kids that working hard for grades isn’t worth it. If you pay for kids to read books, you teach them that reading isn’t fun. They open the book expecting not to enjoy it, since you’re inadvertently communicating the message that people would only read if there’s something tangible in it for them. And once we start bribing for one thing, kids start to assume we’ll cough up for other things, too. We’ve created a real power imbalance, where the kids will say, “I’ll only do this if you pay.” Now that’s counterproductive parenting!

How did we start bribing for so many things? I wonder if it is partly because our authority as parents has diminished. Remember hearing of those “children should be seen and not heard” days? Up until the last century and a half, it was assumed that children would defer to their parents in all things. When children became the centre of family life, though, we parents no longer felt as confident of our own ability to know what was best. Parenting became more about making life easy and enjoyable for childhood than about preparing them for work and independence. So we stopped ordering them around and starting asking politely. It’s only a short hop from there to bribing outrightly.

Children should never have to work from sunup to sundown, as was the case in much of history, and in much of the Third World today. At the same time, though, I’m not sure our all-fun-all-the-time parenting strategy is working, either.

Success in life requires work, but as we work, we find that the work is its own reward. It is wonderful to feel productive. It is wonderful to solve a problem, complete a major task, or land a sought after job.

If we tell children that these things are only worth it for the payment they might receive, then we stunt children’s development. They never grow up. After all, isn’t the definition of maturity doing what is right, simply for the reward of knowing you stuck by your principles?

Perhaps maturity is too big a thing to worry about when you just want your child to pee in the potty, and doling out M&Ms is the only thing that seems to be working. If that’s what it takes, more power to you. But let’s be careful that this parenting philosophy doesn’t spill over into everything. There is great satisfaction in work. We hurt our kids when we diminish their ability to feel that satisfaction on their own. So let’s not bribe them. Let’s just praise them, love them, and cheer them on. That sounds like a better recipe for success to me.

Sheila Wray Gregoire is the author of How Big is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life. You can sign up for her free e-zine at


To Love, Honor, and Vacuum: When You Feel More Like a Maid Than a Wife and Mother
A must read for any woman who finds herself too busy, too tired and too frustrated to enjoy and cherish the most important blessings in her life mainly her husband, her children and her Lord.

How Big Is Your Umbrella?
In this down-to-earth, practical book, author Sheila Wray Gregoire takes readers on a journey through many of her own hurts. From a broken engagement to the loss of a child, Sheila is well equipped to teach others about God's faithfulness in tough times.

Originally published on the website, Proud to be Canadian, March 13, 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009





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