Rewards Versus Rights, Gifts, and Bribes
Rewards should not be confused with rights, gifts, or bribes. In order for your reward system to be effective, and for your relationship with your child to thrive, you'll need to understand the difference between each concept and how to respect your child's rights while using gifts appropriately and avoiding bribes completely.
Obviously, your child has the right to eat, drink, live in safety, sleep at night, have clothes to wear, and so on. In addition, your child has the right to an education, so don't consider a regular school day as a privilege for the purposes of modifying behavior. Extra-curricular activities like band, however, are privileges.
In addition, your child has the right to some form of enrichment or hope in life. You don't need to sign up for expensive lessons or send him to a private school in Switzerland. Within your budget and as your schedule permits, look for a way to nourish your child in ways that school can't, even if it's just talking about a TV program you watched or asking him what he wants to be when he grows up.
If someone who cares for your child is withholding basic necessities like food in an attempt to modify your child's behavior, remove your child from that person's care immediately and call Child Protective Services or the police. Withholding basic necessities is child abuse.
Gifts Celebrate the Individual
Rewards celebrate behavior; gifts celebrate the person for who they are, for just — being. As you read, gifts are more important to some people than others. Gifts are given to celebrate an event, like a birthday, or a milestone, like a graduation. They are typically more expensive and more significant than the “peanuts” you use as rewards.
Gifts do not change behavior. Your child won't stop biting you if you buy him a bike for his birthday anymore than you'll change your behavior if your partner buys you a dozen roses to butter you up. That's why you can't withhold gifts on Christmas if your child misbehaves in December, no matter what the stories say about lumps of coal in stockings for “bad” kids. Withholding Christmas or birthday presents because of misbehavior can deeply hurt a child by failing to celebrate him for who he is, imperfections and all.
Bribes: A Bad Deal
A caregiver who feels like nothing he does can improve his child's behavior might turn to bribes out of desperation. Bribes do not change behavior and can be a dangerous path to start down. In contrast to rewards, bribes are offered on the spur of the moment, and can have short-term effects, but the trade off is more, worse defiance in the long run. Also, bribes tend to escalate into grandiosity very quickly, and the next thing you know, you're offering your child $500 if he'll just get one lousy A.
Once you start offering bribes, your child will misbehave to watch you squirm and then give him a treat that you hadn't even considered. Here's how it works: You take your child to a department store. Your child begins grand-scale misbehavior: pulling items off of shelves, screaming at the top of his lungs, throwing himself down in the middle of a busy aisle, and otherwise humiliating you and making it impossible to get your shopping done.
If you start furtively whispering bribes — “If you just get up and be quiet, we'll go buy you a toy from the toy store” — you've just painted yourself into a corner and simultaneously taught your child to act up again next time you go to a department store. As your child gets more daring and skilled, you'll be faced with escalating taunts like, “So what will you give me if I don't knock all these mannequins over?”