Parent Tactics: Bribery Included

Warning! I’m a behavioural therapist and I’m about to go on a micro-rant. Ok, so behaviours are triggered by an event in our environment and whether that behaviour occurs again in the future depends on if it was reinforced or punished. The terms reinforcement and punishment are often thrown around and often misunderstood, so, I’ll go back to some behavioural basics and explain:

Reinforcement or a reinforcer, is anything that happens immediately after a behaviour which increases a behaviour. So, if you see your child’s behaviour increasing – such as you are seeing more and more tantruming, or more and more compliance, it is because that behaviour is getting reinforced – they like what is happening after the behaviour.

Punishment or a punisher, is anything that happens immediately after a behaviour which decreases a behaviour (we are not talking corporal punishment here). If you are seeing less and less compliance in your child or less tantruming, if is because that behaviour is being punished – they don’t like what is happening after the behaviour, so they are doing it less to avoid the consequence.

Reinforcement and punishment is subjective. What one person finds reinforcing another may find punishing. I love chocolate and I would do almost anything for it. My friend hates chocolate and if she was promised chocolate after doing something, she would not do it. Therefore, my behaviour would increase to have chocolate but my friend’s would decrease because she would want to avoid it. I know some children who do not love being praised. So, being told “nice putting on your shoes!” wouldn’t in fact make them want to put on their shoes the next time to get attention.

I often hear parents saying “I had to bribe my child to do (fill in the blank)”. Most likely they used reinforcement and not bribery. Bribery is when the item is offered before the behaviour occurs and it is in the best interest of the person offering the bribe. So, you have a headache and your child is being noisy. You tell your child “here is a popsicle, now be quiet”. Being quiet is in the best interest of you and not your child and the popsicle is given before the behaviour, with the intention that the child will be quiet.

Note – here is my rant: One of my biggest pet peeves about reinforcement are the terms positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Often negative reinforcement is thought to be punishment, but it is not. Even The Big Bang Theory (season 3, episode 3) got this one wrong when Sheldon was using chocolate every time Penny got something right. Positive and negative are literally like math, add and subtract. Positive reinforcement means something is added to the environment, such as praise, chocolate, giving a toy, or activity. Negative reinforcement means something is taken away from the environment and still increases our behaviour. Best example is when the car dings when we don’t put on our seat belt. Once we put on our seat belt the dinging goes away – it is removed from the environment. What do we do next time? Put on our seat belt to avoid the dinging. Our seat belt wearing behaviour has increased.

Written by: Jennifer Frigault, M.ADS (ABA), BCBA


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