Clean My Room? Sure. But Only if You Pay Me

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have very different opinions about bribing our children. She wants to reward everything they do, from getting good grades at school to cleaning their rooms, with some sort of treat. This can be money, a special toy, or whatever. I say that the kids should learn that an achievement, like grades, should be its own reward. What do you think?

A: In last week’s column I raised the issue of paying kids do certain chores and I got a lot of emails—about half thought that was a good idea, half didn’t. I hate to say it, but there is no absolute right and wrong here. But I should have made a clearer distinction between bribing children and rewarding them. Although they may produce similar results, there’s a big difference.

Generally speaking, bribes are short-term or one-shot fixes designed to stop a specific negative behavior. They generally work, but not for long. Yes, an ice cream bribe will stop the tantrum in the produce aisle at the grocery store, at least this time, but it creates a situation where the power has shifted from the adult to the child: She now knows that anytime she wants a treat, all she has to do is embarrass you in public. And who knows, maybe next time she’ll demand an ice cream and a candy bar. The child may also start expecting a reward for everything. And the last thing we need to be doing as parents is feeding our kids’ sense of entitlement.

Rewards,  on the other hand, are longer-term incentives designed to produce (or continue) good behavior. For example, a reward might be something like the arrangement I have with my nine-year old: When I pick you up after school or camp, you’ll be able to use my iPhone after you talk to me about your day for five minutes. Used to be the “how-was-your-day?” conversation lasted about 12 seconds. Now, I can barely get her to stop after five minutes.

We all bribe our kids once in a while. But your goal should be to move to a reward-based system rather than a punishment-based one. Here’s how.

  • Identify the currency. What is it that will motivate your child? Is it money? Extra time on the Xbox? Food? Later bed time? A special outing with mom or dad?
  • Praise. What your children want more than anything is your attention and your praise. This is really a two-step process. First you need to set clear expectations: “When you’re doing a sport, I expect you to get out there and do the best job you can to help your team.” Second is the actual praise part: “I’m so proud of the way you played—wow, you were really working hard!”
  • Focus on ongoing behavior rather than single accomplishments. So instead of a special treat for winning a race, you’d reward going to all the practices and new personal best times (whether they earn a ribbon or not). Or instead of rewarding straight A’s, you’d reward doing homework every night, getting projects in on time, etc. Of course you’ll want to acknowledge the grades—especially if there’s been improvement over time—recognizing and praising hard work is better for kids than just being goal oriented.
  • Create a system. The simpler the better. And the more the kids are involved in setting the expectations and rewards, the better.  Take a look at My Job Chart (myjobchart.com), which allows you and your kids to jointly set and track chores and incentives.