In a characteristically cutting piece for this week’s Telegraph the anonymous Very Private Tutor reminds us of the power of praise and reward when it comes to encouraging our kids with school work, through a cautionary tale of perceived neglect.

Not all of us put work so far ahead of our kids as the character in her articles, but we could all do with a nudge in the ribs every now and again to remind us that children, as natural learners, feed and thrive off the praise we dish out for achievement.

I got to thinking about the ways in which we bribe our kids – a packet of sweets here for finishing that veg, a blast on the PlayStation there for tidying that room. Are we really doing the right thing when we resort to lazy, but admittedly effective parenting?


Enough research has been carried out to show that bribing kids is by no means an effective behavioural management technique in the long run. As far back as the 1960’s Edward Deci showed that extrinsic rewards make people lose intrinsic interest in the activity itself. Essentially the more we bribe our kids to do the things we want them to, the more they associate that activity with the reward, the activity pales into a means to an end.

Most parents deploy blunt reward techniques in the hottest theatre of battle in the home – homework. Looking at the above statement it seems that cajoling kids along in this way isn’t necessarily the right thing to do, but what is? Well there are alternatives to promises of sugary treats, pockets of cash and video game hours, as highlighted in this NYT article which I’ve paraphrased below. The author consulted several critics of ‘bribing’ and gleaned some of their alternative suggestions.

Next time you find yourself resorting to tried-and-tested bribery techniques when the dreaded ‘H’ word is mentioned; have a try at some of these:

All talk: Dr Deci talks of a three-step alternative to bribes; be clear about why it is important for them to do what you’re telling them to. Next, take an interest in their point of view (“If it’s something they hate doing, acknowledge that, tell them you understand it’s not fun, yet the reason they need to do it is as follows”). Finally, avoid controlling language like ‘have to’ ‘should’ and ‘must’ which reinforce their feelings of being coerced and bullied into doing something they don’t want to.

If-then to now-that: The problem with bribing is not the rewards; it’s the contingency, which is a form of control. Human beings have only two reactions to control; comply or defy. Mr Pink recommends replacing what he calls if-then rewards with now-that rewards, meaning the rewards are given spontaneously and after the fact. So rather than saying ‘If you do your homework you can play on your console’, try ‘now that you have done your homework you can play on your console, seeing as you did it so well.’  Of course after-the-fact rewards should be offered sparingly, lest they turn into an entitlement.

Gamify:  Alan Kazdin says the problem with incentives is they focus too much attention on the desired result instead of the behaviour that leads up to the result. “You can’t throw rewards at behaviours that don’t exist and get them.” He suggests turning processes into  games. Rather than offering a bribe, challenge them to do or not to do, for example in our case you could say ‘I bet you can’t do that times table grid in under half an hour.’ This challenge coupled with the choice is a great motivator.

The power of praise:  Research clearly suggests that praise is usually a sufficient reward, says Dr. Dweck. As parents we should make our praise specific, and focus on the process the child went through to achieve the behaviour, not merely the behaviour itself. In our case – “I really liked the way you did your homework as you realised just how important it was.”

Learning development has a symbiotic relationship with positive feedback. A simple thank you often holds more value than a blunt reward. Feelings of confidence, appreciation, worth and pride are far more useful than material goods.

So what can we take away from this piece? I’m very hesitant to say rewards should be avoided altogether; our children are very different characters from one to the next who react and interact in unique ways that only us as parents truly understand. I can think of many day-to-day occasions when a quickfire reward is the only way to put the buffers on, say, a tantrum and save public embarrassment or nuisance. It’s how you come back to the incident and talk through it that counts: “Always use the blow-up as a learning moment the next day.”

Instead, I’d encourage us all to avoid using extrinsic rewards off-the-cuff as the main way to control behaviour. Bribe or no bribe, it’s always important to explain why you are trying to get your child to do any task, and the importance of the task itself.

All in all, I believe the ultimate reward for good behaviour is the appreciation and praise we sometimes forget to show, and the best incentive for future achievement.



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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.