Is it Bribery to Reward your Children for Good Behavior?

By far one of the most frequent objections we've heard about rewards based child training is that you're basically paying your children to be on their best behavior. Children should be expected to do what's right with or without a reward, or so the thinking goes.

I've talked to a lot of people who claim to believe this, but I've never met anyone who consistently carries it out in practice. Seriously, not one.

Apparently there's something about coming right out and admitting that, 'yes, I reward my children for their obedience' that makes parents squeamish. I guess it sounds like bribery to them and no one wants to be accused of that. Well, I'm here to tell you there's a huge difference between bribery and rewarding obedience. One is concerned with drawing out acts of obedience, while the other is concerned with drawing out a heart of obedience.

It's true - doing what's right should be it's own reward. However, no one is born knowing this. No one comes into the world with a clear sense of what's right or wrong. We have to be taught; and one of the main ways we learn is through rewards and consequences.

Let me use a simple example to illustrate this. No little baby instinctively understands that a light socket poses a serious threat to their safety. They have to be taught. How? Well, we point to the light socket and make all kinds of disagreeable faces and say things like, "Bad!" and "No, no!", and we even mimic what will happen if they put their little fingers in there by pretending to get shocked. 

Of course, the child just sits there, bewildered. Sometimes they get the message, but many times they don't. All this attention that's been paid to the light socket sometimes has the effect of making them want to see what all the fuss is about. Time for plan B. 

When they head for the light socket, what do we do? We warn them. They get a little closer. We warn them again. Finally, just as they're about to put their hand up to it we give them little swat, or we pull them back and say sternly, "No, no!" Most of them break into tears. 

But what about when we see them move towards the light socket, stop, and just look at it? When we see all those little gears in their head churning to determine whether to not they should touch it and, then, they decide not to? Well, bless your soul, we run right over and shower all kinds of praise on them! We pick them up and kiss them and tell them how happy we are about their decision!

And that, my friends, is rewards and consequences in action.

You see, almost every parent in the world, to some degree, approaches child training like this. It's really quite simple. There's right and there's wrong, but it takes a lot of work to help our children make this distinction (and frankly, none of us perfectly discern it ourselves). To encourage our children to make right choices, we attach blessings to them. Conversely, to discourage wrong choices, we attach consequences to them. Is this bribery? It's only bribery if there's no instruction or guidance being provided along the way.

The biggest endorsement that I can think of for rewards/consequence based parenting is the fact that this is how God goes about training us.

If (God) never spoke, if there were never any indication of either his pleasure or displeasure, we couldn’t tell up from down, left from right, or right from wrong. We wouldn’t hesitate to put our finger in the light socket, and we would all die from the shock.

Our heavenly Father, through his word (instruction) and through rewards and consequences, encourages us to do certain things. It’s as if there's a pleasant light cast upon a certain set of deeds and God is saying to us “Do this.” Then there's another collection of deeds that carry with them unpleasant, even fearful consequences. The darkness which surrounds these deeds tells us to “Beware,” or “Keep away,” and by these things we're able to discern the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. Of course, our discernment isn't perfect, and we can be easily deceived, but all the while God is calling to us and rewarding obedience and punishing disobedience.

If he never spoke, if there were never any indication of either his pleasure or displeasure, we couldn’t tell up from down, left from right, or right from wrong. We wouldn't hesitate to put our finger in the light socket, and we would all die from the shock.

It’s no different with us as parents. Imagine if you never said or did anything in response to your child’s obedience. Nothing. Could you expect them to continue being obedient? Or if you never said or did anything in response to your child’s disobedience? You catch them taking a hammer to your dishes and you stand there completely unmoved. Should you be surprised, then, if they move on to your Grandmothers china next?

All parents encourage the good (as they see it) and discourage the bad (as they see it) in their children. It could be a simple ,”Great job!” and a pat on the back, but each of us in our own way go about the business of praising our children when they do something that pleases us. Why? Because we want them to do it again, and again, and again. We want it to become engrained in them and to mold itself into sound character. 

In the end, that's all Character Badges is really about. If used properly it can help you be very deliberate and consistent in the way you go about guiding your children. It can help you to seize more opportunities to bless them when they’ve done well, or correct them when they’ve stepped out of line; and the more effective we are at doing that, the more effective we are at raising our children.