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How to Tell the Difference between a Reward and a Bribe

By Guest Contributor

By Betsy Cadel of Gray Matter Matters

When parenting, although it may seem like rewards and bribes are identical twins there are ways to tell the difference, and it’s an important distinction.

1. Rewards are earned for good behavior, bribes are offered to avoid or stop bad behavior.
Regardless of the size of the incentive (from an ice cream cone to an iPod) if it’s offered to encourage behavior that you’d like to see as part of your child’s character, like studying hard, or being a good pet owner, those are rewards. If the same offer is made for not doing certain things, like not throwing a tantrum or not being rude to a grandparent then it is a bribe.

2. Rewards can be surprises, bribes are overt.
A surprise trip to the gift shop before you leave a museum for good behavior during a visit is a reward. An unplanned stop at the gift shop to put an end to moping or whining is a bribe.

3. How do you feel when making the offer?
If it’s desperation then it’s a bribe.

4. Rewards make your child proud, bribes make your child powerful.
Rewards are not negotiated. They are your decision. So when you say “If you keep your room clean then…” it’s a reward. If a child says “If I clean my room then I want…” it’s a bribe. What your child is doing is extorting compensation for something they should do in the first place.

5. Rewards are a good parenting tool, bribes are not.
Once you start down the path of bribing then it will be hard to break the cycle. Children very quickly will come to expect a “this for that” arrangement. You will forever be finding yourself at the bargaining table whereas even as adults we are motivated by rewards in the form of promotions, raises and the pride that comes with a job well done.


Guest Contributor
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  • Isabel

    May 27, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for this info. We’re currently going through this at my house with our 3 year old. I want to think we’re rewarding him, but truth be told…I think we’re bribing him. AHHHH!

  • psumommy

    May 27, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    This is a fantastic breakdown of it! I get frustrated because I use rewards, but get accused of using bribes by other parents. This is pretty much exactly how I explain the difference!

  • Selfish Mom

    May 27, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Right on the money (which I also use for rewards!). Except for #1. I think there’s some wiggle room in that one.

  • ginabad

    May 27, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    My immediate thought was that a reward was to encourage proper behavior / teach a social skill intentionally. Whereas a bribe is getting her to do something I want her to do that I don’t really care about as an improved behavior (in that moment). And yes, it’s a negative.

  • Upstatemomof3

    May 27, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    We do not bribe our children. I just do not believe it is the way to accomplish anything. If my kids are misbehaving they will pay consequences not get new toys. We do occasional surprise rewards but a lot of things (like behaving at a museum – especially if we went there for the kids) is just expected and rewarded with a simple thank you.

  • Molly Mae

    June 12, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    My mother in law brides the grandchildren, and it drives me crazy!!!! I want so badly to forward this article to her…ugh! But, that wouldn’t be the wisest way to address the issue. Thanks for clarifying the two.