Children’s behavior and bribes

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Bruce Feiler explores the widespread phenomenon of bribes (rewards) to get kids to do what they should, and the equally widespread belief that using such “extrinsic rewards” will actually undermine kids’ ability to do the right thing because behavior “should” be based on longer lasting “intrinsic rewards.”

I’ve come to agree with Steven Reiss that there is a mythological distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” rewards. The psychologists who continue to promote this distinction advocate reasoning with a child to get them to do the right thing, which in most cases doesn’t get you far at all (“you should eat your broccoli because it has lots of good flavenoids!”). What is your goal, as a parent? When you say you want kids to get intrinsic rewards for eating vegetables you are saying you want kids to feel good about eating them, to like eating them. But they don’t like them. They don’t feel good eating them. How to get from there to where you want them to be?

Provost Betty Phillips at ASU has done research showing that kids learn to like vegetables if you serve the veggies mixed with something they do like–a sugar syrup, a marshmallow mash, maybe just lots of butter. And after about five times they start to be able to like the vegetables and be able to eat them on their own. Some might say that this is a bribe. I say it’s training.

What we, as parents, are really trying to do is create an unconscious, positive association with eating that vegetable. Liking the vegetable, wanting to eat it–that is really what is meant by an “intrinsic reward.” But that association has to be built through training. It is a product of specific types of behavioral reinforcement. “Bribes” are perfectly fine if applied in the right way, although you can also get the same effect through games, through fun competition and praise–”you ate it faster than me–high five!!”

I remember that I learned to like cauliflower when I sat at the plate with the “good” fork (don’t ask) while on vacation, a plate that was intended for my father and which had half a head of cauliflower (he likes cauliflower). I was informed that if I was going to sit there I had to also eat what was on the plate. And I did. I ate the half cauliflower and found that I actually liked it.

Bruce Feiler starts his article by saying he wants to find more creative bribes, but he doesn’t get creative enough. The key is that we are doing behavioral modification on our kids, and bribes can be a legitimate part of that if they are used correctly.



Modifying a Child’s Behavior Without Resorting to Bribes – This Life –

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