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Want Your Child to Behave? Try Praise, Not Bribery

I recall telling at least one of my friends that “I’m not above bribery” when it comes to getting my children to behave. I recall chuckling as I said this; my oldest was three years, and I was exhausted after enduring a full eighteen months of tantrums. Perhaps you’ve tried one of the following lines to inspire your cherubs to act properly: “If you’re a good boy on the plane, Mommy will buy you a Thomas the Tank Engine toy when we land.” Or: “If you behave in the grocery store and don’t yell or have a fit, Mommy will buy you a donut.” 

Sound familiar? Bribery may have temporary results, but experts say it doesn’t create long-term behavioral change. If you really want to stop certain behaviors or inspire better choices, bribery—and even the infamous star chart—isn’t the way to go, according to Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, head of the renowned Yale Parenting Center and author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child

“Bribery just doesn’t work. And star charts and rewards don’t work. Children don’t need them at all. Star charts are actually much better suited for the parents—to help them [change their behavior with their children],” said Dr. Kazdin when I interviewed him. 

I had always thought star charts and rewards were a great strategy for positive reinforcement, as opposed to parents’ constantly punishing kids and pointing out their negative behaviors. When I discussed this concern with Dr. Kazdin, he agreed that when parents punish their kids constantly and devote more attention to negative behavior, while offering little praise for good behavior, they send the wrong message. But with that said, he strongly emphasized that his thirty years of working with thousands of families around the world have proven that bribery isn’t half as effective as structured praise. “Structured praise is better,” he explained, “but often parents just don’t know how to do it. They need practice, and there are even games they can do that I’ve outlined in my book.” 

The most important tip Kazdin offers is to begin praising good behaviors effectively by following these guidelines: 

Praise effusively. Don’t just say, “Good job” when your child eats his greens—exclaim, “That’s great!” 

Specify exactly what the child did: “I’m so happy that you ate your broccoli!” 

Touch the child: give her a high-five, a pat on the back, or a hug. 

Do not “caboose.” Caboosing is when a parent, after praising a child, then adds a negative or comparing comment. For example, after praising your child for eating veggies, don’t then say, “Why don’t you do this every night?” or, “Your sister eats her veggies every night, and look how healthy she is!” 

Many parents say that when a child does something good unexpectedly, they often pounce on the moment and praise their child (as shown above). But to change ingrained, negative behaviors that have created power struggles in your house—such as getting a child to do his homework, practice piano, or go to bed on time—Kazdin has outlined these tips that require parents to also look at themselves: 

Be specific about the behaviors you want. Explain to yourself first, and then to your child, exactly what you want to see. Saying, “Be a good boy” or, “Play nice” is too vague. Instead, a better example would be: “When the adults are eating, please play quietly, keeping your voices down.” Or: “At 5 p.m., please begin your homework.” Then, when your child follows those instructions, praise that behavior specifically and enthusiastically (the younger the child, the more enthusiastic you should be): “You played quietly and played in the other room while the adults finished dinner, and you used your inside voice—that’s wonderful!” 

Identify a small number of behaviors. Start with no more than two or three behaviors you want to develop in your child. You will be able to replace them later with new behaviors, once those first few are established. 

Model the conduct you want the child to demonstrate. Show the child exactly what the behavior would look like, even if she already “knows.” Then have the child mimic that behavior, and praise her for partial attempts to copy you. If you see other people at school or the mall doing what you want your child to do, point out the desirable behavior positively: “How neat that that child is waiting patiently in the store line!” Don’t say a negative thing about your child or even make a comparison; just point out positively what you see. 

Repetition and practice are essential. At Dr. Kazdin’s clinic, where he and his trainers work with families, they help parents to reward behavior in order to encourage repetition, which is called reinforced practice. If your child is already occasionally engaging in the behavior you want, systematic praise can ingrain it as a habit. If the child does not practice the behavior yet in the course of normal life, encourage it with pretend, “gamelike” ways. For instance, if your young child doesn’t go to bed on time, you can role-play during the day. Make it a game: have your child go to bed, get in bed, read a book, and so on, and then praise what a wonderful job he did. Doing this a few times during the week can help set up a fun expectation, as he’ll know praise and attention will be coming his way. 

Acknowledge gradual changes. If the behavior does not yet occur the way you want it—not a full half hour of reading each day—praise lesser durations and partial successes. The idea is that the more praise and acknowledgment a child receives for trying, the more likely he’ll be to try again. 

I certainly plan to try out this strategy with my eight-year-old and now willful eighteen-month-old son. It makes sense that when I point out only what my older son is doing wrong, he gets depressed or angry and doesn’t have the will to try harder. Threats of punishment, such as “If you don’t play violin, you can’t have a playdate this week,” really don’t work in the long term, either, and typically create resentment. Instead of falling back on bribery, try out these strategies next time—and let me know how it goes.

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