What is the distinction between bribing a child and giving her rewards and incentives? I have a four-year-old, and I have been very cautious about not getting into bribing mode. However, I see parents around me using it, well, more like incentives, and I would like to know how to make a distinction. I also see parents who can’t get their children to do anything without incentives, and to me that looks like a bribe really. What are your thoughts?

There’s a very thin line between bribing and incentives. But perhaps we can borrow from the adult world to make a distinction. Say, I work in an organization that builds roads. Suppose my organization offers me an incentive: For every project completed well and on time, I get some extra payment, a bonus, and a letter of commendation. This is an incentive for me to work well on future projects. In addition, if the company sends me a nice box of chocolates upon completion, or takes all the hard-working employees out to a great meal, that is a reward.

The deal: You can reward your child for an important task.

However, if to do that same work—my part in the completion of the road—I ask my client or my senior officer (who is part of a chain) for money, and I am paid it, then that is a bribe. Moreover, if I make it clear that nothing moves unless I get that money, it means that I just can’t or won’t function unless I am paid that amount. This means that I have no interest or integrity when it comes to doing the job itself. Building a road means nothing to me, unless my palms are greased.

Isn’t the situation similar to one in which parents, desperate to have their children study/eat/play/sleep/behave, are held to ransom and accept the fact that nothing will move unless a “bribe" is paid? That’s very different from the parent who expects that something will be done by their child, but “sweetens the deal" by throwing in the promise of a meal out or a vacation or even a simple toy or favourite sweet or a shiny paper star on the soft board. It’s also different from the parent who, on seeing that the child has done something well, gives him or her a reward. These two parents’ actions are very different from those of the parent who ends up bribing a child to do something.

The essential difference is that the children in the incentive-and-reward scenario accept that something needs to be done—homework or tidying up or bathing or teeth brushing, like the road department employee who accepts that this is his or her work. However, the child in the bribing scenario, like the corrupt road-maker, has decided (and been allowed to decide) that he/she doesn’t need to, or want to, do anything. Someone has to “make" him/her do it. By bribery, or later by threats and dire punishments.

I hope this example answers your question.

In essence: Children of parents who bribe are children who have never been taught the intrinsic value of doing something. Children of parents who give incentives and rewards have learnt that a thing needs to be done, even if it may not always be fun. And for that, the parents are happy to give him/ her something in appreciation.

Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.

Send in your queries to Gouri at learningcurve@livemint.com