Bribery vs Reinforcement

June 29th, 2012 by Behaven Kids


Reinforcement is a core principal of my field of practice of behavior analysis.  In our field we define reinforcement as something that increases the probability of the specified behavior happening again in the future.  It can be removing a non-preferred task or item or the presentation of a preferred item following the targeted behavior.

So enough of the technical talk, here are some examples of reinforcement:  I tell my dog to “sit”, she sits, she gets a treat; my son eats all of his food on his plate at supper, he gets one piece of candy; my daughter puts her shoes on by herself and I tell her “good job”; and the list could go on and on.

I used skittles to assist in potty training my daughter.  I often hear people refer to this has bribery and here is my take.  My definition of bribery is that you give someone something of value before they complete the desired  task or activity.  It would be like giving my daughter the skittle before she went to the bathroom in hopes that she would actually go.  Bribery seems like a big risk as the outcome could go either way.

Reinforcement on the other hand, is a sure fire thing.  The definition of reinforcement is that it increases the future probability of the behavior.  So when my daughter went to the bathroom, she had to actually eliminate in the toilet before she could receive a skittle.  If she didn’t go, she didn’t get one.  She was motivated to get the sour skittles.  Once she started to get them, her eliminations in the toilet increased.  She was getting sour skittles like crazy!  Reinforcement has to have value to a person.  If it doesn’t have value, then it’s not a reinforcer and you have to find a different item or activity to use.

Reinforcement always works.  If you hear anyone that say it doesn’t, they don’t have the right item or activity.  Bribery will not always work.  You will not always get the outcome you desire as the person has less motivation if they are already in possession of the item they desire.

I agree when people take a stand and state that we shouldn’t bribe our kids.  I completely agree.  I have an issue when people are referring to reinforcement as a bribe.  I think as parents it is our responsibility to reward and praise our children for doing good things.  We should want our children to associate us with reinforcement!

What is your take on bribery and reinforcement?  Have you ever bribed your kids?  How do you find ways to reinforce all of  your family members at home?


6 Responses to “Bribery vs Reinforcement”

  1. June 29, 2012 at 12:55 pm, Nici said:

    I totally agree! I’m sure you are not surprised though as I gave learned such wonderful things about behavior from you! While reading this I instantly thought of my cousin who started potty training with her son this week. They are using a sticker chart and so far it seems to be working, but it is definitely important to make sure you are using the right reinforcement! I agree that using reinforcement is not bribery and plan to use it in the years ahead as as well :). Keep writing, you are and inspiration because you remind me how doable tasks can be!



  2. June 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm, Lisa said:

    very useful message. Thanks Amber!


  3. June 30, 2012 at 9:55 am, Mary Costello said:

    I agree whole-heartedly with what you write here Amber. What adult doesn’t use reinforcement to get throught their own day? Work breaks, dinners or movies out, exotic, or not so exotic vacations as the budget and time warrent. These are all ways we “reward” ourselves for a job well done. We often hear that someone “deserves” these things. In a way, reinforcements are the first step in teaching our kids goal setting, in my opinion.


    • August 04, 2012 at 8:21 am, Kimberly said:

      – 1 I’m sure Lucas is developing just fine. Every baby is difnereft. In the playgroup we were in all the babies are within about 1 month old of M one kid younger than her is already walking and saying a bunch of words. One kid older than her has been walking for a while but only has two or three words. M doesn’t walk, and only babbles. (for the food, I have a friend whose little boy didn’t eat AT ALL until he had teeth and could chew pieces. He just HATED purees and mush). 2. I hate Fancy Mom. I don’t know any personally, but I see them. And they annoy me. I have never worn makeup or done my hair, so with a kid? Pfffft. And my definition of clean clothes basically just means DRY clothes now. Pretty much. Don’t knock yourself on that, for sure! I agree it’s difficult not to compare to other people, but if you expose yourself to enough difnereft situations I think you realize how impossible it is to have the same experience as anyone else. It’s one of the reasons I love reading blogs!


  4. June 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm, Deb Stewart said:

    Thanks for the good explanation. It appears to me that following through and being consistent produces the best and most positive outcomes provided the reinforcer doesn’t cave!


    • August 04, 2012 at 4:30 pm, Roque said:

      Start by two. The biggest sercet is to not push they are too honest about doing it in her own time. Otherwise you will get frustrated and they will. Try for a while maybe a week and if he is not interested, leave it for a few weeks, then try again. The absolutely best advice I can give you is to not use the pull-ups things (different brands have different names, I guess) Children’s treat them like diapers. Just use the thicker absorbent terry toweling kind of stuff you get before you can change Gauch. Good luck it’s an interesting time, but you’ll be so proud when it’s finished! The freedom for both of you is amazing! Oh, try one Stickers / chart reward system!. This works for some children. Even my son has nothing to pee on the other hand in the small pots, but not wanted there # 2 (remember, water in the soil) do. He preferred the regular toilet that uses only briefly then use the regular one for all. Get brought a nice little colorful stepstool lead.


Leave a Reply