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'90s FAMILY : Let's Make a Deal : Bribing children is a common--and sometimes necessary--part of parenting. But some say it will lead to a dependent, less generous child.

March 22, 1995|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You're in the grocery store angling your child's tiny feet toward the shopping cart seat. She protests, her body stiff as a 2-by-4. She howls. You try rationalizing: "Mommy has to buy food so we can eat." More howls. Finally, you whisper: "If you sit down, you can have a cookie."

Bingo . She's in.

The old-fashioned reward--or bribe, as some parents call it--is as much a part of parenting for most families as bedtime stories and sleepless nights. Little hands tidy up trashed rooms for dinosaur stickers. Children read for shiny quarters. And some parents trade M & Ms for doing time on potty seats.

"I don't go for the psychological approach," says Suzanne Beshoff, a Santa Ana mother of Nicholas, 3, and Alexandra, 6. "I even find myself saying to Alex, who can be rude: 'If you are nice to this woman, then I will buy you a (McDonald's) Happy Meal.' And she'll be the nicest kid on the face of the Earth. Bribery works."

A number of child-behavior experts--while recoiling at using the word bribery for what they call rewards-- would agree. Using rewards to produce a desired response is a basic principle of human behavior.

The optimal use for children, experts say, is giving small rewards to establish good behavior, then doling out even smaller rewards over longer intervals.

"You don't have to reinforce a behavior every time to maintain it," says Myron Dembo, a professor of education psychology at USC who is a child-rearing and parenting expert. The dynamic for the child "is like a slot machine in Las Vegas. You don't know when you are going to win the jackpot because it varies."

Eventually, Dembo and other experts say, children internalize a particular behavior and start acting in the desired way habitually and for non-material rewards, such as an approving smile.

But not all the parenting and human behavior experts concur. Among the dissenters are Alfie Kohn, author of "Punished by Reward" (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), and Thomas Gordon, founder of Parent Effectiveness Training seminars, a human-relations training program established in San Diego in 1962. Kohn argues that rewards are extrinsic, short-term motivators that produce "mindless obedience for simple tasks."

"Rewards, like punishment, are very effective at getting one thing: temporary obedience," says Kohn, who lectures and writes about human behavior. "What rewards never do is help kids become caring, responsible people. Research suggests that the more you give children to behave a certain way, the less commitment and value they attribute to that behavior."

Janie Hewson, mother of Kimberly, 5, uses rewards only when she clips Kimberly's fingernails, a grooming detail that is particularly traumatic.

Hewson, a post-graduate psychology student who lives in Venice, says she began giving Kimberly rewards routinely years ago, "and it backfired. Every time she did anything, she wanted something. I was buying her cooperation. Now if she screams, I have to endure her for not getting what she wants. But that is my job as a parent."

Unlike Hewson, nearly every parent interviewed for this article said they use rewards or praise. Diane Browne, a Placentia mother of two boys, 12 and 13, says rewards have paid off handsomely in her household.

"My boys are older now, so they monitor their own behavior charts," says Browne, who has used happy faces, ice cream every Friday and meals at McDonald's to motivate her children for more than a decade. "For every 20 minutes they practice their music and do physical work, they get 10 minutes of time on the computer. And they get 90 minutes total for the day. Behavior doesn't happen overnight and this is behavior modification. The charts takes the place of my nagging."

But Kohn and Gordon say rewards do not foster consideration for other people's feelings. They also argue that rewards keep children dependent, needy and deprived.

"Studies show that children who are frequently rewarded are less generous," Kohn says. "The only way to grow values in children from the inside out is by working with them. If they are old enough to be rewarded, they are old enough to be consulted."

Kohn suggests rationally discussing a child's inappropriate behavior, exploring its causes and showing the child how that action is hurting others. For those who must take their children to the grocery store (leave them at home if you can, he advises), ask the child "to participate in how we got in and out of the store without getting our ears split or feelings hurt."

Kohn's assertion that rewards make children less compassionate will occur only if parents give their children elaborate rewards, says Frederick Frankel, a UCLA professor of psychology specializing in child-behavior problems.

"If the reward is really big, then children will do something just for the reward," Frankel says. "But if it is something like a stick of gum to do homework, then when the gum is gone, they forget about it and the homework is done."

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