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Bribes, Incentives and Reinforcing Positive Behavior: What's the Difference?

May 26, 2019

 

The first thing to take into account when considering bribes, incentives and reinforcing positive behavior is defining what a reward is. A reward  should be something that is pleasurable to our Loved One’s (LO) and NOT something WE want or think our LO needs. So, rewards can be some form of affection like a hand on the shoulder, a smile, a favorite video game, having lunch together, encouraging words, etc… It could also be a book with inspirational ideas or quotes, as long as, our LO wants to read that book. If you find the book inspiring and want your LO to read it because you feel it pertains to them, that may not be rewarding. In fact, they may see it as a judgement or an attempt to control them.

 

The second concept that took me a while to grasp is that bribes or incentives are not reinforcing positive behavior. Bribing, in particular, almost always never works. Often times it makes situations worse. Incentives might work once or twice, but can fall apart quickly.

 

Let's take a look at a Bribe scenario: Mom is on the phone and the child is loud and disruptive while mom is talking. Mom then gives the child a lollipop as long as the child stays quiet. The problem then becomes, the child finishes the lollipop and there is no reason to stay quiet anymore. Instead it would benefit the child to act up because mom may produce another lollipop. If mom gives a second lollipop, the child’s bad behavior is now reinforced. The child has learned that acting up produces a reward!

 

Note * A BRIBE IS A REWARD GIVEN BEFORE, WITH THE PROMISE OF A PARTICULAR BEHAVIOR.

 

Now, a look at an Incentive scenario: Dad wants his son to go to Refuge Recovery meetings because he is sure his son will like them. Dad promises his son to buy him cigarettes if he attends a meeting. After the meeting dad gives his son a couple of cigarettes out of the pack and promises more if he will attend more meetings. The son does and after each meeting, dad gives him more cigarettes. After a while, the son starts to complain that his dad is trying to control him. His dad is forcing him into something. Dad is really manipulating his son into doing something he thinks is beneficial.

 

Not* AN INCENTIVE IS SOMETHING THAT IS PROMISED BEFORE AN EXPECTED BEHAVIOR BUT GIVEN AFTER IT OCCURS.

 

Another issue I have found with bribery and incentives is they both show all of your cards. It is very clear what YOU want out of your LO and if they cannot produce then you might be disappointed. In the second scenario, what if the son does not like Refuge Recovery meetings? Will dad be let down? Does he have to keep going just to get cigarettes? All of this makes the situation a lot more complicated. Just one hiccup and it could all backfire.

 

What does Reinforcing Positive Behavior look like?

Reinforcing positive behavior is waiting until our LO’s behave in a particular way and then rewarding them for it. So, reworking the two scenarios given above:

 

1. Mom notices that the child is quietly playing with a toy while mom is on the phone. Mom keeps the conversation short and then says something like, “Thank you so much for giving me the time to take that important phone call. How about you and I sit at the table and have some milk and cookies together?”

 

2. Dad notices his son has started attending refuge recovery meetings once a week and says something like, “I appreciate how tired and difficult it must be to get to a meeting after a day at work, I am proud of your effort. Let’s grab a bite to eat together.”

 

Note* REINFORCING POSITIVE BEHAVIOR IS WHEN THE REWARD IS GIVEN AFTER THE BEHAVIOR IS OBSERVED.

 

There is no suggestion of behavior on the part of the person giving the reward. When we wait for the behavior to happen and then reward, our LOs have the opportunity to own the behavior. It was their idea; we just support it. We are giving them space to learn about themselves and we are pointing out what is good about them and their ideas. We are stepping back and allowing them to control their own lives.

 

I hope that some of what I have laid out here with a better understanding of bribes,incentives and reinforcing positive behavior. I can say that I have yet to see bribes work and incentives work well. Incentives can work some of the time but it is best to use them strategically. (More on that in a later blog post). I have, however, reinforced positive behavior in my own house and have had success with it. None of this is easy and takes practice and patients on our part.

It is great to see and hear from people that are working at CRAFT. I encourage families to stick with it. You and your LO are worth all of the effort. Remember, you are not alone!!!

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