Bribery vs. Reinforcement:

pleading mom

I often get the  “We have tried reinforcement and it does not work” look from parents coupled with a sigh that suggests “tell me something I don’t already know”.  They are frustrated from hearing the same recommendations again and again and for good reason.  Reinforcement is a frequently tossed around buzz word when it comes to behavior.  It’s also a frequently misunderstood buzz word.  The truth is, most parents have attempted to reinforce their child’s behavior at some point.  The ones who claim it “doesn’t work” very likely have confused reinforcement with bribery.  So what’s the real difference?

What exactly is reinforcement?

Reinforcement is a core principal in behavior analysis.  Behavioral science defines reinforcement as something that happens after a behavior has occurred that increases the probability that the behavior will occur again in the future So what does that look like?  It is the presentation of a preferred item or the removal of a non-preferred task or item following the behavior.  Simply put, something is added to or removed from the child’s environment after they doing something that impacts the likelihood of them doing it again!

A few real world examples:  I tell my daughter to eat her broccoli at dinner, she gets one piece of candy after she eats; my son completes his math assignment, he gets 30 minutes on the iPad.   I often hear people refer to this as bribery and the difference is really all about timing.  When you bribe someone, you either give them something of value before they have completed the desired task or activity (Bobby, here is a cookie, now go do your homework) OR you offer them the valued item once the problem behavior is already set in motion (the goal is to stop homework refusal and you offer the child a cookie mid-tantrum if they will sit and do homework). When setting up a reinforcement plan, parents can arrange the contingency beforehand (such as in a behavior contract where your child is aware of the contingency “every time you do this, you get that”) or parents can surprise the child with reinforcement which we often think of as “catching them being good” (your child puts her dishes in the sink without you asking her to and you offer her some skittles for making a good choice).  Reinforcement is a sure thing.  By definition, reinforcement works.  If the behavior is not increasing over time, then you are not actually reinforcing it!

How to set up a reinforcement plan:

When people say reinforcement doesn’t work, remember that it is because they are misunderstanding the procedure.  Bribery is so tempting…oh SO tempting.  Make the pain go away lickety split.  We have all been there!  But it will create more problems down the road (and may not always work as the person may be less motivated if they have already been given the desired item) so it’s important to know the difference and be proactive in crafting a plan.  While working with a behavior analyst is probably the best way to ensure that you are setting up your plan properly, you can certainly take the following into consideration as you try and craft one on your own.

  1. All items that your child likes are not reinforcing.  It’s very important to make a list of motivators for your child (food items, trinkets, activities) and try to use them as reinforcers.  This takes trial and error.

  2. If a motivator works to make behavior more likely in the future, then you know it is a reinforcer!

  3. Motivation changes. What you used last week to reinforce a behavior may need to change this week.  Kids get bored.  Items don’t always hold the same value.  Shake things up!  This takes commitment and patience.

  4. Praise goes a long way for many kids.  Before you feel the need to start accruing a goody bag of reinforcers, make sure to ask yourself if behavior specific praise is something your child responds to.  It’s easy, free and healthier than a bag of gummy bears!

  5. Always remember that you must never provide a reinforcer once a problem behavior is in motion or you will reinforce that exact behavior.

So should we bribe our kids?  Heck no.  Should we reinforce their good behavior?  Yes, yes, and did I mention yes?

Precision Parenting


  1. Bribery and reinforcement are NOT the same.
  2. Bribery occurs once a behavior is already in motion.  Do NOT fall prey to this easy way out of a challenging moment!
  3. Reinforcement by its very definition works. If a behavior is being reinforced, it will very likely continue.
  4. Seeking the aide of an experienced Behavior Analyst is a good start towards learning the fundamentals of just how significant a role reinforcement can play in changing behavior in your home.