Day #293 – Bribery

22 Year Old Me:  I will NEVER bribe my children.

I have a problem with saying never.

Every time I say never – I end up doing that very thing.

Example:  There will never be a dog in my house.  (Read Day #122 – Animals Belong Outside and Day #280 – Puppy Love).

Example:  I will never cut the crusts off my child’s bread.  Fact:  I do, in fact, cut off crusts.

In my defense, autism changes everything.

Including bribery.

Confession Time…

As a teacher and a mom I know that intrinsic motivation is best.  I know he should just want to do whatever it is he needs to do.  I am well aware that real change in behavior occurs only when it is acted upon by ourselves.

Regardless – I bribe like crazy.

I bribe with…

Screen time
Friends coming over
Cheese Balls
Trips to Kwik Star
Getting out of chores
Songs from iTunes
Ice Cream
Late(r) bedtimes


I’m not necessarily proud of this fact – but it does get results. Trust me, I have read all kind of research and popular press articles about the fact that giving incentives for behavior reduces their intrinsic motivation.

Pause for clarification/definition intrinsic motivation is that which comes from within.  An innate want/need to act or do something.  Extrinsic motivation comes from external sources – incentives (self or other induced).

Then, I talked to another mom about my guilt of using extrinsic motivation.  I knew this type of motivation was wrong and wouldn’t ever get ‘real’ results.  She laughed at me…her son was several years older and on the spectrum.  She said, “Don’t think of it like that. Think of the end result as reinforcement.  Go ahead and bribe.  Then after you get the result reinforce with feeling. Turn the extrinsic into intrinsic.”  She also told me I spend too much time thinking…ha!

Ahhh…I get it.

My new equation:  Extrinsic motivation + Prompting + Reasoning + Reinforcement = Intrinsic Goodness

Complicated?  It seems that way…but not really.

Consider this scenario…

  1. Tucker.  If you clean your room I will allow you an extra hour of screen time. (Extrinsic motivation)
  2. Do you remember all of the steps involved in cleaning your room? (Prompting)
  3. Excellent.  It’s important to keep your room clean to avoid bugs and take care of your nice things. (Reasoning)
  4. He cleans his room. He gets his screen time.
  5. When he goes to bed I remark at how nice his room looks – thereby praising the behavior and NOT relating what he did to the extrinsic reward (or incentive). (Reinforcement)
  6. He now automatically associates vacuuming with cleaning his room. (Intrinsic Goodness)

We have found this process conditions behavior – so the behavior now occurs more naturally.

Extrinsic Motivation

Several sources and researchers will attest to the fact that children with autism are often not intrinsically motivated. It’s simple really – artificial means are necessary to change and/or prompt behavior.  Really, when considering the Theory of Mind (Day #225 – The Trouble With Taffy, Day #189 – He Feels When It’s Real, and Day #144 – Divine Lies) it is obvious that intrinsic motivation wouldn’t work.


The other thing I learned from this mom was that helping Tucker be successful in any given task may require more direction and/or information.  Saying ‘clean your room’ was too abstract and large.  So it became, “When we clean our room we make the bed, take dirty clothes to laundry machine, pick up anything on the floor and put away, change the trash, and vacuum.”

Other people call this prompting.  It’s information given before a desired behavior that makes the behavior more likely to happen.  Setting them up for success!

It’s also the reason I wish I would have included ‘dusting’ in that list of ‘cleaning room behaviors.’ Missed opportunity.  Damn.


In true form – Tucker won’t do anything without reasoning.  Why is important to go to school?  Why is it important to eat vegetables?  Why is it important to go to bed?  Saying “because I said so” will NEVER fly with this child.  He expects more – he expects ‘better’ parenting.

Then I remember, as an adult I’m not a fan of completing ‘useless’ tasks.  I have a purpose for every thing I do – shouldn’t I help explain each and every purpose to him?  Sure…it takes time – but it also provides meaning. Which in turn provides motivation.


Praising the positive behavior and following directions, no matter how small.  This is imperative – and to be specific.  “Tucker, you even vacuumed!  Wow!  I wasn’t expecting that.”  That reinforcement now causes him to vacuum every time he cleans.  It was a positive reinforcement upon completion of his behavior.  HOWEVER….I NEVER mention the extrinsic reward (screen time).  Reminding him what ‘I did for him’ would negate any positive feelings he gets from completing a desired task.

Intrinsic Knowledge/Motivation

Finally…yes, it happens.  Slowly – but surely.  The conditioning of behavior begins with extrinsic motivation but with enough time and patience…it can become second nature and creates intrinsic goodness.

The moral of the story?

My bribery has a point and is mostly guilt free.

Mostly, because…well…honestly – sometimes I just need to shower without interruption.

9 thoughts on “Day #293 – Bribery

      • My girlfriend is here, she has a daughter on the spectrum too, I read your post to her aloud and we laughed! It is just the way it is. We do lots of things we said we would never do, joyfully. If we get ice cream too, well all the better! Thanks for the great post. : )


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