Wednesday, July 27, 2016


The TIMES writer misuses the term “bribe” in the story.

“The Right Way to Bribe Your Kids to Read”

Although it is common for many to consider rewards for behavior as “bribes,” the term often carries the meaning of influencing people to violate trust or break a rule. In short, it suggests rewards and prizes may be morally questionable. The quotes in the story also refer to rewards in a confusing manner.

Consider this. If reading were a rewarding activity, then it would be rewarding in itself and there would be no need for external rewards—a new book might suffice to encourage more reading.

Psychologists prefer the term “reinforcement” to refer to events or tangibles that, when presented following a behavior, serve to strengthen the desired behavior.  And in research or clinical practice, psychologists recommend fading (reducing) reinforcements as the behavior becomes a habit. Even better, different schedules of reinforcement often result in lasting habits once an activity is found to be enjoyable.

There is a downside to reinforcement attempts. You could induce frustration and dislike of an activity if trying to increase reading in a person who has some limitation for a task compared to the skill of others. We all have limits in our capacity to accomplish helpful goals. Encouraging me to run further or faster, quilt, sculpt, or do other things where I have zero to minimal skills would be incredibly frustrating and serve only to increase rejection, “Why try?” In effect, if the attempt at reinforcement turns out to decrease behavior then a parent has punished rather than rewarded a child.

To psychologists, activities that reduce a desired behavior define the term "punishment." Said another way, punishment is that which stops or decreases behavior. 

Whether increasing reading or some other worthwhile behavior, parents ought to be cognizant of reasonable achievement levels for their children. If a reward program does not work, then by all means, don't use it-- and be sure to avoid inadvertently "punishing" a child or teaching children to change behavior for a bribe.

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