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When a Reward for Kids Becomes a Bribe

A 5-year-old never puts away her toys without a shouting match with her parents. Mom promises a trip to Disney World if the girl will routinely clean up after herself without an argument. Reward, or bribe?

A 12-year-old hates homework and routinely skips it. Dad pledges to spend Saturday morning alone with his son doing whatever the boy wants if he'll complete his homework without a reminder for a week. Reward, or bribe?

Bribe on the first count, but a positive reward on the second, says David G. Fassler, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry.

"A reward usually doesn't need to be extra large to modify a child's behavior," he says. An extravagant promise, however, "suggests that there's a struggle between parent and child. It implies that the parent is trying to make the child do something he doesn't want to do by upping the ante [bribing]."

And bribes can establish a dangerous dynamic: You can unintentionally teach a child to withhold behaviors until a bribe is offered, says Dr. Fassler.

Children develop a sense of competence and mastery by doing tasks, and they enjoy getting a reward. But a reward definitely is not a bribe. A bribe means, I'm giving you this candy bar to shut you up. A bribe stops a negative behavior, but it doesn't leave children feeling good about themselves.

Clearly bribery is out, and positive reinforcement is in. But how should parents use rewards to teach their children?

We do it all the time. It doesn't have to be monetary or with toys. It can be with praise, hugs or any positive reflection on a child's action.

Whether spontaneous - like a hug - or structured - like stickers on a calendar for using the potty - positive reinforcement is a valuable teaching tool. But spontaneous rewards alone are not enough. Kids must see that their action earned the reward.

If your daughter plays nicely with her brother, praise the girl for her behavior, then tell her that because of it, you'll play with her. Put yourself in your child's shoes. How many of us still try to please a loved one? Your child also goes after very similar rewards.

And along with smiles, young children love earning gold stars or stickers. These work well because a young child needs to be rewarded immediately after performing a desired behavior. And don't just use rewards when there's a problem, use them routinely, says Dr. Fassler.

Children are always trying to improve at something, so there's plenty of opportunity. But stick with goals that are achievable. And avoid extravagant rewards that can lead children to expect too much.

"I like rewards that are based on activities kids like to do," Dr. Fassler says. "Parents don't always realize what a powerful reward it is for your child to spend time alone with you." But the reward shouldn't continue forever. A reward may encourage a child to begin doing homework, but eventually the work should be done for its own rewards - like a love of learning, or the satisfaction of completing a task or getting a good grade.

Phase out the reward once your child learns the behavior. If necessary, tell your child you'll be phasing it out. And when you give out rewards, don't go overboard. Certainly, you should hug your children all the time. But praise them only when they have done something to be praised. Otherwise, they'll have a false sense of reality.

Giving your child appropriate rewards for achievable goals helps him develop into an emotionally healthy adult, says Dr. Fassler.

A child who learns to achieve a goal and earns a positive reward for it gains a healthy dose of self-esteem, he says. That child should grow up to be a more resilient adult, able to cope with life's ups and downs.