Rewarding your child when he has done a good job, made progress on a tough problem, or achieved something he's worked for is a great way to accentuate positive behavior (and prevent problem behavior, too). A rewarded child learns, “When I do well, I'm appreciated and rewarded.”
It's a Good Idea!
Rewards for positive behavior are best when they are not tangible, material objects. If you want your child to internalize his achievements, use encouraging words, or, better yet, throw him a party! Parties and celebrations are great consequences of a job well done (and they can become part of your family culture).
Be very careful before linking food with any kind of reward, bribe, or negative consequence. It's vital to teach your child how to be a disciplined eater, that is, to know what she likes, feel when she is full, and understand what makes a healthy diet. Using food as a motivating force or reward will compromise your teachings.
Natural and Logical Rewards
Rewards are best when they are a natural or logical extension of the behavior. The best rewards are natural—and you don't have to provide them (though noticing them is wonderful, positive reinforcement). A child who works hard in his swimming class is rewarded by increased skills, bigger muscles, the great feeling of improvement and ability, and, eventually, permission to swim on his own. For a child, the sense of “I can do it!” is the best reward in the world.
A logical reward is provided by the outside world in response to a child's actions. Getting an “A” on a studied-for test is a logical reward. A logical reward might be used like this: “Sarah, I really appreciate how hard and well you worked with me fixing up the laundry room today. I thought we could go to the hardware store tomorrow and get you a tool box so you can start your own tool collection.” Sarah's reward is directly related to her actions. You bet she'll be eager to help you again, not because she expects more tools, but because she knows you really see and appreciate her efforts. (Note: Tangible or monetary rewards should be used warily. Often the best reward you can give a child is the honesty of your pride in her achievements.)
Rewards Versus Bribery
Many child development experts recommend rewards but have a conniption fit when you mention bribes. So what's a bribe? How does it differ from a reward? A reward happens after the fact, in return for a kid doing the best she can. The child isn't working for the reward, she's working hard for the pleasure of achievement. The reward is a little bonus, a special treat. A bribe, on the other hand, is used to motivate a child in advance.
A bribe is an outside motivator to get the child to do what you want. “If you're a good child, I'll get you an ice cream.” It might work, and forgive me, it works with dogs, too. “Down, boy. Sit, and I'll give you this doggy treat.”
Bribes are also often negative motivators, and they're often related to or combined with threats. “If you don't flunk algebra this year, I'll buy you a car. Otherwise, it's reform school for you, Buddy.” Or, “Be a good little boy and don't use naughty words with Aunty Susan and once she's gone I'll get you ice cream. If you call her a poo-poo head, you can't watch Sesame Street tomorrow.”
What do you want your child to achieve? Do you want Buddy to pass algebra so that he can have a car, or a future? Do you want your little son to learn that the only reason he should have a “clean” mouth is so he can watch TV, or so that he learns what kinds of language are acceptable?
Here's the big disclaimer: Almost every parent I know has resorted to bribery. I know I have. It's usually done in public, and it's usually done out of sheer desperation. Bribery is a short-term solution, and sometimes the short term wins out. Sometimes you just need results. Just keep in mind that bribery works best when it is used very occasionally. Used as a regular technique, it loses its teeth, and throws you firmly into the camp of wimpy parent.