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UPDATED: Incentives or bribes? - Part One
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Chicago Community Kollel

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1/23/08

Rabbi Horowitz:

We would appreciate your thoughts regarding offering our children incentives, financial or otherwise, for doing well in school this year.

We don’t want to ‘bribe’ our kids, but on the other hand, incentives seem to work very well.

What do you think?

Yaakov and Susan

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

One of the themes of these parenting columns is that we ought to search for and chose the Golden Path of moderation that our chachamim (sages) extolled. For when we veer off significantly to either extreme, we usually pay a steep price for doing so.

I often tell parents that overly bribing your children is the mirror image or exact opposite of hitting them (engaging in corporal punishment). Think about it. Why do people hit their children despite the fact that there are very harmful effects of doing so? Clearly, some or many people strike their children because they lose their temper. Others lack the self-confidence or skills to effectively parent without resorting to physical violence. But there are those who feel that it is an appropriate method of discipline and point to its effectiveness in achieving their objective. In fact, physical punishment has an immediate short-term effect that is actually very successful, because if you hit a child, he or she will almost inevitably do what you want them to do for fear of further punishment.

However over the long-term, it does the exact opposite of what your intention was, all the while teaching your children that violence is an acceptable technique to be used in solving problems. In the short-term, corporal punishment often results in meek compliance, but over the long haul, it breeds tremendous resentment and usually rebellion. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe z’tl often remarked that every child who is hit, winds up hitting his parents (and rebbeim) back for each and every ‘potch’ he or she was given – sometimes with compounded interest. The only question is how many years it will take them to hit back and exactly how they will do the hitting. (Rav Wolbe was not implying that children will physically hit their parents when they get older. However he was saying that acts of rebellion against parents – and against religion – are often a byproduct of physical abuse as children take the opportunity to finally ‘hit back’ when they are old enough to do so.)

With that in mind, it may be helpful to think of excessively bribing your children as the mirror image of hitting them, albeit without nearly the same negative effects. It is incredibly effective short-term, as nearly all children or adults are likely to do whatever it is you ask them to, provided that there is sufficient incentive to do so. However over the long-term, what you are really teaching them is that every time they do something right or noble, they ought to be immediately rewarded for that behavior. Overly incentivizing your children will soon or later create the impression that there is a quid pro quo in everything you ask or tell them to do.

On the other hand, expecting young children to have a fully developed moral compass where they will do things without any incentive is extremely unrealistic. If you are a regular reader of these lines, you know that I often framed questions regarding the parenting of our children in terms of how we view the same phenomenon as adults. Here too, I would pose the question to you as parents: do you do things altruistically or for incentives? Or is it a combination of both?

In a perfect world, we would do everything for the right reasons. However as we all know, none of us are perfect … yet, so most of the things that we are motivated to do have some sort of incentive for us; emotional, physical, or financial.

If I may be so bold, even our Torah presents things to us in terms of incentives. We all know that the ultimate beauty of Gan Eden is to bask in the Shechina of Hashem. It is a spiritual pleasure, not is a physical one. With that in mind, why did our chachamim speak about Gan Eden in terms of the physical attributes of the meals we will eat there – the Livyasan fish, excellent meat and the finest wine? The answer is that as humans it is almost impossible for most of us to conceptualize a purely spiritual pleasure. Understanding our human frailties and limitations, the Torah frames things in terms of things that we can better understand. In other words … offers us an incentive.

Next Week:

• Some ideas for practical and inexpensive ‘incentive plans’ for your children

• The difference between a bribe and an incentive

• Some profound thoughts from the Rambam on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as it relates to children.



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