Does your child expect something in return for every little good deed that they carry out?

Many parents have used this tactic before. Exasperated with your tot because they refused to leave the playground for dinner, you say, “If you are a good girl and leave now, we’ll have ice cream for dessert.”

Or perhaps you’re worried about your tyke’s behaviour at a play date with a friend. You then say, “Share your toys nicely, and we’ll go to the zoo on Saturday.”

Nicole Lim, a mother of three kids aged 6 months to 5 years, admits that she resorts to bribing her offspring “when you just need to get things done quickly, or you have your hands full”.

“For example, getting out of the house on time every day is quite a feat with the three of them, so I would tell my older ones, put on your shoes quickly, then we can go to the park after school.”

Kids can be motivated to exhibit good behaviour when enticed by a little something ― a treat or a reward. However, there are potential pitfalls to this and how do you draw the line between rewards and bribes?

“Bribing is not positive reinforcement. Bribery will then encourage the child to act badly in order to get the bribe again.”

Rewarding or bribing

Youth psychiatrist Dr Lim Boon Leng explains that bribing involves giving the reward prior to the good behaviour or promising a reward, so that the child stops behaving badly.

“Bribing is not positive reinforcement,” he notes. “Bribery will then encourage the child to act badly in order to get the bribe again.”

Instead, the right way to reinforce good behaviour in a positive manner is to give the child a reward when he has shown good behaviour, Dr Lim adds.

Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, says that when you offer a reward, discuss the treat earlier ― such as with a reward chart ― rather than discussing it on the spot.

“Don’t let it be excessive. Offer outings, or do things together, instead of giving money or buying toys. They need to see the reason for doing things.”


Potential pitfalls

If your reward ventures into the realm of bribing, then there may be potential pitfalls.

First, it can send the wrong moral message. This happens when parents become too over-reliant on material rewards such as expensive toys, which sends the signal that parents can “buy” good behaviour.

Second, it is not correcting the wrong behaviour.

For instance, a child throws a tantrum at the supermarket. His mother, eager to get the grocery shopping done, lets him buy a toy, so he’d be quiet. The child doesn’t learn to be patient and considerate to his mother, instead, he discovers that throwing a tantrum can earn him a reward.

Koh notes, “The child works for the reward rather than the behaviour, gets bored with the same rewards and then starts to want more.”

Dr Lim adds, “Rewarding good behaviour is just one component of good parenting.”

“Other components like having clear consequences for poor behaviour, providing consistent rules and your parenting style, and teaching the child the right values and reasons for having good behaviour must not be neglected.”

Dr Lim adds that parents should teach the child the right values and the moral reasons behind good behaviour. “Story-telling or personal anecdotes are good ways,” he says.

Rewarding good behaviour is just one component of good parenting. Other components like having clear consequences for poor behaviour, providing consistent rules… and teaching the child the right values and reasons for having good behaviour must not be neglected.”

Guidelines to rewarding your child

That said, offering small rewards to motivate your child isn’t wrong in itself but it should be done in a proper way. Dr Lim and Koh offer suggestions:

1. Reward appropriately

Rewards need not necessary be materialistic and can be in the form of praises or a special outing, says Dr Lim. Says Jimmy Yeo, who has three kids, “Since I have three, the reward is usually a little one-on-one time with either parent on a short outing ― maybe to the mall, or the library.”

2. Reward in a timely manner

“Rewards should only be given occasionally,” Koh asserts. Delaying gratification is also helpful ― ‘when we finish all the chores over the weekend, then we can go for ice cream.” And be patient with your child. “Give your child time to change his behaviour. Behaviour takes time to change and you may need to practise these strategies for some time. Be consistent with them for the behaviour to eventually sink in,” Dr Lim advises.

3. Focus on the behaviour

Make sure your child knows why he is being rewarded. It’s easy for a young child to start focusing only on getting the reward, so it’s good to have a talk with your tot about the act of the behaviour ― for instance, if he has shared his toys willingly with his friends, praise him and tell him that you liked how kind and generous he was. Rewards should also be predetermined if parents are actively trying to instil a particular good behavior, says Dr Lim.

4. Get creative

Mix up rewards, or you can even use reward charts. For instance, give stars for good behaviour that junior can accumulate to exchange for a bigger reward. “Breaking down rewards into smaller parts has a cumulative effect, rather than a child looking to just finish it,” Koh explains.

Photos: iStock

Like us on Facebook and check SmartParents regularly for the latest reads!

Check these out, too…

5 reasons Threenage years are worse than the Terrible Twos

5 toddler behavioural issues to look out for

How to teach your child about body safety [Infographic]