Rewards And Bribes For Good Behaviour. Which Are Best?

This page looks at behaviour rewards and bribes.

  • Why do toddlers need rewards? What if they aren't working?
  • What is the difference between a reward and a bribe?
  • Are bribes ever acceptable? Many people would say rewards have their place and bribery is bad full stop - but it is not as simple as that. 

Behaviour Rewards And Bribes has some effective sugar-free ideas for ways to reward good behaviour.

So Why Do Toddlers Need Rewards And Bribes?

Because it is human nature to do better when we are rewarded. Whether it is a heartfelt 'thank you' or a pay rise, we all perform better when there is some positive response to our actions.

Toddlers, who are only just developing their self-esteem, need rewards even more than the rest of us.

What Is The Difference Between a Bribe And a Reward?

The accepted difference between rewards and bribes is that...

The child does not know she will get the reward for behaving well,


a bribe 'seals the deal' - and makes the child behave where s/he would otherwise be naughty.

The only problem with this is that it's just not that simple.

What do I mean?

When a parent says "If you let me brush your teeth, then you can play with your new toy", the child knows that she must do one to enjoy the other. Is that a bribe? Not in my book.

Or how about this scenario? When we work hard to get a payrise, we know we must do one to enjoy the other.

By the above definition, they are bribes, but most people would call them well-deserved rewards.

So I would change the definition of 'bribe' to be as follows: when the reward far outweighs the action - a trip to the zoo for having your teeth brushed or a pay rise for turning up to work (depending of course on how bad your job is!)

Giving your child a sweet every time they do as you say, or a new toy each time they sleep all night in their own bed are NOT behaviour rewards - these are bribes and put the youngster firmly in control. Before you know it, he will be negotiating his bedtime schedule and daily access to the ice cream tub.

Genuine behaviour rewards do not rely on material objects - they are more subtle and powerful.

Should You Ever Use Bribery?

Good old-fashioned bribery does have its place, as long as it's used sparingly. An recent bribe that I used with my own toddler springs to mind:

On a trip to buy shoes, I was trying to persuade my little treasure to sit still long enough to have about 4 pairs of sandals tried on, but he was more interested in re-enacting his interpretation of Prison Break meets Billy Smart's Circus around the shop.

The promise of an ice cream worked wonders - nothing else was even worth trying.

Bribes like these should be given rarely. If you regularly give your child ice cream or sweets, choose something else that will really grab their attention.

When Behaviour Rewards Just Don't Work

The most important thing is NOT to use a bribe in response to a tantrum or similar. Bribes should be planned for special occasions.

If your rewards are not having the desired effect on your toddler, you need to look at the other strategies you are using to deal with problem behaviour.

Rewards are only ever part of the answer. If used in isolation, you will have an unmanageable child on your hands.


Preventing Behaviour Problems has some useful suggestions for other strategies to improve your child's behaviour.

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