Pregnant women bribed to quit smoking: Like mother, like child?

A test program in Britain which rewards pregnant women smokers who quit with shopping vouchers raises a couple questions for parents who are concerned with rewarding kids for good behavior.

Darren Staples/Reuters/FILE
Women smoke cigarettes outside the Odd House public house in Snarestone, central England, July 1, 2007.

Now that Britain has chosen to bribe low-income pregnant women with shopping vouchers in an effort to get them to quit smoking, it may be time for parents to review pros and cons of offering rewards vs. good values.

In parenting, the idea of rewarding good behavior with treats can be known as a positive reinforcement to some, and outright bribery to others.

I am not arguing that rewards don’t often get instant results from both adults and children.

However, for moms like me, it’s not so much about how easy or fast the solution works in the short term, but the difference between training someone by playing to their base or to higher natures as we nurture.

In the case of Britain’s program, pregnant smokers were given just over $600 (£400) via incentive service Love2Shop in shopping vouchers and “the effort was so successful at getting women to quit that it will likely be rolled out to other parts of the UK,” according to The Daily Mail.

According to The BMJ, the website hosting the paper on the research of the program, lead researcher Professor David Tappin of Glasgow University in Scotland stated the objective of the program was “To assess the efficacy of a financial incentive added to routine specialist pregnancy stop smoking services versus routine care to help pregnant smokers quit.”

According to the paper, 612 pregnant smokers (confirmed by carbon monoxide breath tests) in Glasgow and Clyde, were split into two groups for the study – one with incentives and the others without.

Significantly more smokers in the incentives group than control group stopped smoking: 69 (22.5%) versus 26 (8.6%). Vouchers were rewarded at different points in the program, including when participants set a date to quit and when they proved through a carbon monoxide breath test that they had stopped smoking.

Tappin concluded that the program was a success and another trial over a much broader swath of the U.K. will likely commence as a result.

For years I have cringed every time one of my four sons came home brandishing a small toy or candy he got from a teacher as a reward for good behavior or grades because it feels like a short-term solution and substitute for the harder work of teaching the value of education and good behavior as rewards in and of themselves.

Also, from the perspective of childhood obesity concerns, I am also not a fan of candy for the same reason some child behavior specialists refer to it as “The Poisoned Carrot” in the classroom as an educational reward.

The first question the incentive program raised in my mind was not about the expecting moms, but the children they are bringing into the world and whether they will then transfer that system to how they raise their kids.

Will these moms teach their kids study because they are taught at home about the benefits of an education or be given a treat or prize for performance?

I personally subscribe more to the method of parenting outlined by Alfie Kohn, a behavior expert who speaks and writes extensively on parenting and education, and is the author of the book "Punished by Rewards.”

Mr. Kohn believes that rewards neither enhance achievement, not do they foster good values. 

“Research consistently finds that bribes, like threats, do not lead to lasting positive changes; at best they can only alter superficial behavior for a little while. Not only do rewards fail to work over the long haul – to get adults to stop smoking or lose weight, for example, or to get kids to read more or act generously – but they often make things worse. Scores of studies have found that the more you reward people to do something, the less committed they become to whatever they had to do to get the reward," Kohn writes in an email.

I've often found that reward systems begin to fail as kids age-out and parents can't afford the bigger bribes necessary to maintain control.

In the long term, eschewing rewards and instead teaching the value of good work has always won out with my four boys as slow and steady wins the race more so than the promise of the trophy.

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