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What’s a Bribe and Why is it Harmful for Children with Autism?

Bribes are dangerous because it puts the child in the position of power rather than yourself. Rewards, on the other hand, make your child proud of himself for good behaviour.

As parents, you may or may not have unintentionally used bribes on your child. This is often because it can be seen as the quickest or easiest way to get children to perform a desired behaviour, or because you felt like you had no other options. However, there is a difference between rewarding and bribing, and we have to be careful because they convey different messages to children.

Let us begin by talking about how we can distinguish between bribes and rewards. Rewards should often be spontaneous - a positive consequence that comes unexpectedly to the child when they show the desired behaviour - while bribes are often overt and the child is establishing said behaviour only because he has the “reward” in mind. Crucially, the timing of the presentation of this “reward” makes the difference between if it is a bribe or reward. Are you giving it to them when they are crying, in order to stop them from acting out, or are you presenting it when they have stopped crying, rewarding them for their calming down? It could also be helpful if you take into account your feelings while providing the “reward”. If you are doing it out of desperation, it is almost always a bribe.

Bribes are dangerous because it puts the child in the position of power rather than yourself. Rewards, on the other hand, make your child proud of himself for good behaviour. By using bribes, the moment the child is no longer interested in the reinforcing item, your authority is also gone! Rewards are based on your decision. A child should not be demanding or expecting rewards for a behaviour he should be establishing in the first place, or else, it may not be sustainable in the long run. Rewards, on the other hand, associate the desired behaviour with positive feelings and encourages the desired behaviour to occur more often in the future.

We also have to realize that bribery can become a continuing trend that eventually encourages your child to act out to get what he wants. It is only a short term solution. Trying to curb the unruly behavior of your child by offering a bribe could actually seem like it is working in the moment. Take the classic example of a parent who pursues her grocery shopping carefully while her children run wild around the supermarket. The parent is upset and humiliated, so she suggests a deal: if the child calms down and maintains good behaviour till they reach home, he will get to use the ipad for an hour. It seems to be effective almost immediately. However, in the long run, it leaves the parent powerless because the child learns a new way of getting what he/she wants and thus maintaining control of the situation. If they do not get what they want, they could easily establish the same behaviour of running around and kicking up a fuss which would lead them to getting a reward, like from past experiences.

Psychological studies have shown that while external rewards like bribes are effective at getting people to adopt certain behaviors, they can undermine what's called intrinsic motivation — a person's internal drive to do a task, for example, because it makes them feel more autonomous or competent. This is why we eventually have to aim to fade out the reward when a child develops intrinsic motivation, and not always rely on an external reward.

In conclusion, always bear in mind that bribery puts the child in the driver’s seat and is something we should avoid. Negotiating is also a form of bribery where the only motivation of the child is to get what he wants at that time. The effective use of rewards is quite different, because you are rewarding your child for his good behavior, rather than being manipulated and extorted into giving something to them.

Written by Claudie.


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