Should We Bribe Our Children?
How to enhance learning for children and teens
Rob Dindinger PhD.
When learning to work with children, it is important to understand how natural brain development impacts a child’s ability to learn and control their impulses. As children progress in age, their brains are still developing. The process of development can be crudely described as a back to front process. Many parents notice that as their child grows, new learning comes gradually and not before its time. For example, things like speech and walking will not occur until there is enough development in the language and coordination (motor) centers of the brain. Children tend to take their first steps around one, start speaking two-word utterances by two and then really start to speak much better after three. The same is true for learning and impulse control.
As a child grows, the brain’s reward system matures much faster than the reasoning (prefrontal cortex/executive functioning) part of the brain. Another way to say this is that a child’s desire to obtain what they want (I want it now) is much stronger than their ability to think about the cost/benefits to obtain what they want (maybe I shouldn’t). This discrepancy is greatest when a child is young, and gradually improves until their brain reaches the end of its back to front development in the early to mid twenties. Pre-teens/tweens (ages 11-13) are especially vulnerable as their reward systems are not fully developed, they are beginning major hormonal changes, and their ability to control their impulses are still underdeveloped. Because of these challenges, it is particularly important that parents, teachers, and other adults create boundaries and limits to keep a developing child safe. In a sense, a supportive adult acts as a crutch to the child’s reasoning part of their brain until the child is able to pick up the load. This capacity increases throughout the teenage years, and parents will go through the challenging task of guessing how much decision making their teen is ready for.
When it comes to learning and impulse control, it is important to have the right strategies for the right stage of brain development. For example, spending a great deal of time reasoning with a younger child is probably less effective than providing limits and rewards to shape behavior and learning. Expecting a child to curb their natural impulses to get rewards by using the reasoning part of their brain is like giving a “Just Say No” pamphlet to a drug addict. Young children respond well to praise, stickers, recognition, attention, and other things that activate their reward system. They also tend to respond to interventions that delay rewards. A child will almost always succeed when they develop in a structured environment where they are given praise, recognition, and attention for following rules, routines, and expectations, and where rewards like time with friends and electronics are withheld until responsibilities are completed. This type of environment utilizes a more highly developed reward system to facilitate learning that the reasoning part of the brain is not yet ready for.
It is common for parents to come to my practice with their out of control child or teen. They do not understand why their child is so oppositional when they have gone out of their way to make sure their child has all that they need. When I ask them about what they provide I get a list of things such as iPods, soccer, dance, cell phones, Xbox and/or other gaming systems, makeup, clothes, money for activities with friends, and the list goes on. I then ask them what the child is required to do to access these activities. This is when I often see blank looks of confusion. It is also common that when I suggest that a child/teen should earn such rewards the parent responds “Oh, I do not think that will work” or “I can’t just take their stuff.” This is when the parent training process begins.
The Use of Rewards 101
A basic principle of rewards is that whatever behavior precedes a reward is more likely to be repeated in the future. For example, a parent who praises their child or teen for good manners and grants access to privileges for completion of daily responsibilities is likely to have a child/teen who is well mannered and responsible. In contrast, a parent who ignores disrespectful behavior and allows their child/teen to self-reward with video games and phone access following disrespectful behavior or not completing daily responsibilities, is likely to have a child/teen who does not live up to expectations and shows greater disrespect for them over time. Targeted use of rewards to shape learning can be a very powerful tool to support a developing child, However, unchecked rewards can be equally as powerful, as they can instill negative attributes and behaviors over time.
“But I don’t want to bribe my child”
When parents start to understand the role that rewards can play in shaping desirable behavior they often have the worry that they are bribing their child for good behavior. If your child is young (below the age of 10), I will often explain that small rewards (bribery) are a necessary support for a child who is not yet capable of the type of reasoning they need to learn and stat safe. I also explain that this is not a forever process. That in time your child will build patterns of behavior that will endure beyond the use of a reward. If your child is a tween or teen, I often explain to them that your tween/teen will not be getting extra bribes, but the rewards they already receive will be getting restructured so that their unchecked rewards are now used to help support good choices. One of the great things about rewards is that whatever is paired with a reward becomes important to a child. They feel good about it and see it as an important resource. As you provide rewards to your children, eventually the child feels good about listening to you as their parent and it makes them feel good. The day comes when your child/teen becomes motivated to engage in good behavior because of the way it makes them feel. They see value in their parents and respect the structure that has been provided. One of the best results is that you have taught your child valuable parenting lessons that will be passed down to their children.
My child has ADHD does that make a difference?
If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, careful use of structure and rewards is even more important. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is an executive functioning (reasoning part the brain) disorder. Children and teens with ADHD have an even greater challenge using their reasoning brain. This results in a child that is at the mercy of their reward system. Every little potential reward system stimulation becomes a distraction and desire. They struggle to stop themselves from reward seeking and exhibit very impulsive or distracted behavior. These children have the greatest need for structure and targeted rewards. If you want to understand how rewards can help your ADHD child focus, just watch them play video games. Video games are designed to provide regular, frequent rewards. Every few minutes, the video game will give the user a chance to accomplish, overcome, and obtain. A child with ADHD can focus on a video game all day if left unchecked. This is because rewards focus them. Using this same pattern to reward your ADHD child can similarly help them to do homework, focus in class, and complete daily responsibilities.
Children with ADHD need predictable, unchanging structure where regular praise, attention, and consequences (delay of a reward) are present. In the beginning, the rewards should be very frequent, but as the child conforms to the structure, the time between rewards can be gradually increased. This will help the child to increase their attention and decrease their need for regular stimulation. A mental health professional is sometimes needed to help design a good behavioral program for children with ADHD. If you find yourself struggling with your ADHD child, early interventions designed by a clinical psychologist trained in behavioral interventions may be extremely helpful.
One simple tool for younger children
There are many types of ways to reward your child. Many parents have found that little treats are great for getting younger children to learn. Though this works well, I often discourage giving out sweets every time a child succeeds. There’s more than one solution. A solution I’ve recommended is to create a simple token economy where a child gets praise and rewards on the way to the sweet. To the right is one example of a punch card token economy. The child gets a punch in a square when they follow directions the first time. It takes 20 times of following directions before they get their sweet, 10 minutes of video game time, play a game with dad, or other predetermined reward. This reduces the cost and extra calories of always providing a direct reward. The punch card works just as effectively because the child knows that it leads to the reward. To maximize the effectiveness of the punch cards, I encourage parents to not use more than three cards (each with a different goal) at the same time. I also encourage practicing very frequent use of the card in the beginning to make sure the card equals a reward for the child. In the beginning, practicing the card can be a game as you ask the child to do silly things to get punches in their cards. Each time it is punched the child should receive praise as well.
Take home message
Remember that rewards unchecked will likely lead to undesired behaviors. Having structure and targeted rewards can be helpful in shaping desired behaviors. Children who have attentional challenges will likely need increased structure and reward frequency at first. The use of a token economy may increase the effectiveness and frequency of targeted rewards. Remember that you are not bribing your child but are supporting their normal brain development by providing them optimal learning.