Is It A Reward or Bribe? How Do I Motivate My Child?

I am asked this question all the time. Is it a reward or a bribe when I try to incentivize my child’s behavior?

I work with a family that has super smart and also pretty intense kiddos. 

It comes with the giftedness territory and these children are no exception. 

Their eleven year old was struggling to take an important medicine every day – like spitting it out, gagging and flat-out refusal. 

I began  by asking him for his input.

Is it the texture that makes it bad? The taste? Is it hard to swallow?

What’s getting in the way of taking something that we know is going to help you feel better?

Then his mom and I got to work. We created a reward chart – ten days of taking the medicine earned him money to spend in Fortnite.


Guess what?

He took the medicine for ten days. He proudly checked off the boxes on the chart and began to feel better.

At the end of the ten days, predictably, he stopped. It wasn’t worth it anymore. So, his mom and I came up with a new reward, one that would not actually cost money- take your meds every day and each week you get an extra hour of screen time.

Within a day, he was back on track.


reward or bribe


In reading this story, you are probably reacting in one of two ways – 

#1 – Awesome! You figured out something that works. 

#2 – What? You paid him to take meds? How is he ever going to learn if he expects to get paid every time?

Almost verbatim, the second response is the one this sweet mom received from more than one well-meaning friend. 

It’s not a new question.

The line between spoiling and accommodating our children’s needs is a tough one. It’s also one that causes a ton of judgement and concern that we are enabling, coddling, overprotective or all of the above.


Reward or Bribe? How Do I Motivate My Child?
Please, just one bite.


Reward or Bribe? 

A few years ago, my youngest son participated in a therapeutic program for children with anxiety and other needs. Every single session involved earning points for trying new, hard things and participating even when it felt uncomfortable. The points could be accumulated and used to purchase prizes like Pokemon cards, basketballs and other cool toys.

The program encouraged us, the parents, to come up with inventive ways to reward our children when they accomplished something difficult. They stressed that every child’s level of ability is different, so for some kids, they might need a huge reward to brush their teeth everyday, while others might need it for completing their chores or homework.

I am not kidding when I say that, when presented with this, almost every parent in the room freaked out.

We were there for expert intervention. We were all asking for help in managing the most difficult behaviors we were parenting through at home. And yet, when we were given an example of what they knew to be working with our exact children, we all struggled.

I shouldn’t have to bribe my daughter to get her to brush her teeth.

I refuse to be a hostage in my home.

Why should I have to reward him for doing basic things?

It was intense.

It was also something the therapist had clearly experienced before, because she calmly smiled and waited for us to stop losing it. 

Then, she said something that I shared with my medicine chart mom, and that I want to share with you today.

A bribe is something you offer your child to stop a negative behavior.

A reward is something you offer your child to encourage positive behavior.


Reward or Bribe? How Do I Motivate My Child?


How Do I Motivate My Child?

I will never forget all of the parents’ reactions in that room.

It was almost panicked. We are so worried about making the wrong decision for our children, so worried about spoiling and enabling them, that we lose sight of the struggle our kids face every day.

Today, if your child is struggling in some way, I want to encourage you to determine what positive behavior you are looking to develop and encourage in her. Then, I want you to feel the freedom to reward the risk taking and/or discomfort that behavior may cause your child.

Sometimes this looks like a chart. Other times, it looks like an offer of ice cream if they take a shower first. Immediate reward or time bound rewards all accomplish the same goal = encouraging positive behavior.

My experience has been that the more we parent in ways that encourage team work and positive interactions, the better able our children become at coping on their own.

You won’t need the reward forever, but you will always want the connection and respect it brings to your relationship with your child. 

I give you permission and so do well-trained experts. 

Is it a reward or bribe?

A bribe is something you offer your child to stop a negative behavior.

A reward is something you offer your child to encourage positive behavior.


For more support and encouragement:

9 Things Doctors Just Shouldn’t Say To A Special Needs Mom

To the lonely mom of a child with special needs

When Your Child With Special Needs Is Bullied


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  1. Cyndall Tahija says:

    Yes I agree with this so much! We attended a behaviour workshop for parents of ASD kiddos last year, and the instructor said they aren’t bribes, they are “tangible positive behaviour reinforcers”. It makes such a difference for my little man. Reward charts do not work, he fixates on getting all the stickers etc to the point of meltdowns. But a simple “we can watch tv after we tidy up” can motivate him. Or “a new Lego set if you do well at the dentist”. Besides making our life easier, it shows that we respect how difficult these things are for our kiddos. It also helps them to focus on the positive when it is getting hard, instead of just seeing how enormous an obstacle is ahead,alleviating some of their stress. And depending on what the reward is, they have something permanant to remind themselves that they can do something that is hard and succeed.

    1. Oh yes! So well said. Thank you for sharing your story, too.

  2. Krista Monroe says:

    OH MY GOODNESS!!!!!!!
    One lesson I learn over and over again with our daughter who has ASD is…..
    traditional parenting styles and strategies simply do not apply with these types of needs.
    We forget that at our house too, and when things blow up…. we reevaluate and discover that we have fallen back into traditional expectations of her, or traditional styles of discipline. I have to remind myself over and over that those things don’t work. Our jobs as parents include being full-time detectives as well. We have to sleuth out what works for our kids to reach the desired outcome, then take steps to get there. Some days it’s a millimeter-sized step. Other days we move a whole inch! But the trick is… keep looking for whatever works. As they grow and mature, they will need different strategies and tricks. It’s tricky. It’s discouraging. But I am thankful for this group of parents, lead by Fearless Shawna, to commiserate with and use as sounding boards. Keep up the good work!

  3. OK, I love the idea, but I am not dealing with kids that have very good cognitive ability. Like all 4 are in the Mild to Moderately Disabled category! So everything needs to be brought down to a very simplified version of cause and effect, because that is a concept they just really can’t grasp when they are functioning like a toddler. Advice???

    1. This can be immediate gratification! Like, do this and then you get this type thing. The charts are helpful when you are looking at long term behaviors or older kiddos, but the same principle applies when you are literally rewarding in the moment.
      Does this help?

  4. Cyndall Tahija says:

    We try to reward immediately esp when it is something unpleasant. We have found lots of little rewards are more effective then ‘earning’ one big one When mr 4yo needs to take medicine, we have a marshmallow waiting. His last haircut was tear free because he was holding his brand new box of Lego that he knew he could open as soon as the haircut was done. Sometimes letting them decide which reward rather than if they should do the thing they don’t like helps too, giving sense of control, even over a matter that is a non negotiable “Would you like a marshmallow or a jelly bean after your medicine”
    So much is trial and error to find what works for your kiddo

  5. Rewards should always come first in my opinion, but when they don’t work, bribery takes over. I am guilty and I am sure most other parents!

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