“I’ve been very careful to
not use bribery with my child, but there have been times when I’ve said
‘If we all get buckled into the car, we can have time for a book before
we eat lunch’… or something like that, and I’ve wondered if I had just
used bribery. What’s the difference between bribery and helping them to
move towards the next thing with a little incentive?” – Julie
It’s a well-accepted tenet of parenting that bribes are a bad idea, used only by desperate parents. But why do “experts” always give this advice?
1. Because children shouldn’t be “rewarded” for behavior they should do anyway.
don’t find this reason convincing. All of us need some incentive to do the
right thing and give up something we want. Just because your child
“should” obey you instantly without an argument the first time you tell
him it’s time to leave the playground doesn’t mean he will. There
are lots of things we “should” do that we’re more likely to do if we
see that there’s something in it for us. For young children, that might be
looking forward to a book before lunch.
for a “Win/Win” solution that meets both our desires and our child’s
desires is not bribery. The key is to offer the “reward” in advance, to make the situation work for everyone. Don’t offer the reward in the middle of misbehavior, because that trains kids to misbehave to get the reward. (What about physical incentives, like toys? See
2. Because when kids get older, they won’t get rewards for doing what they’re supposed to do.
they’ll get a paycheck for doing their job. They’ll get a tax break for
donating to a good cause. If they eat right and take care of their
bodies, they’ll be rewarded with good health. So this objection isn’t
always true. Even if it’s true that the world doesn’t necessarily reward
good behavior, there’s a fundamental flaw in the argument. Just because
we’re preparing kids for a cold, cruel world, we don’t make them sleep
without blankets. We raise them to be the kind of person who’s empowered
to create more warmth.
Conclusion: Not a convincing reason to refrain from rewards. Again, the caveat holds that these rewards are established in advance, not pulled out under duress when a child is misbehaving.
Because when children are rewarded for a desired behavior (sharing,
reading, eating broccoli) they actually do less of the behavior!
this is convincing. Research shows that rewarding a child for a
behavior communicates that the behavior must be unpleasant, since you
“have to be rewarded” for doing it. Unfortunately, this is true not only for material rewards but even for the reward of praise (“Good sharing!”)
This seems to be because kids focus on the
reward, so they never experience the inherent rewards of the activity
itself: Sharing can give you a good feeling, reading can be entrancing,
and broccoli can taste good!
bribes or praise to get kids to repeat a desired behavior can backfire. Luckily,
there’s an alternative. We can point out the result of the behavior and
empower our child to decide if she wants to repeat it: “Sam was so happy when you shared your truck with him!” (If you figure out a way to use this to get your child to eat broccoli, please let me know. One family says that “Your belly was so happy when you gave it that broccoli” produced happy smiles.)
Because when children get used to constant rewards for doing what we
ask, we’re training them that the reason to do what we ask is because
they’ll “get” something.
As children get older, they learn that once we’re offering them a reward, they can negotiate it upwards. So if your child ever says “What do I get if I do that?”
you know you’ve taken rewards way too far. And as we established above, if you offer your child a
“reward” for stopping “bad” behavior, you’re actually training him to
misbehave in order to get future rewards.
We’ve all pulled out an enticement on an airplane, or at Grandma’s
house, hoping to distract our child from an impending explosion. And
that’s fine; think of it as triage. Just know that your child still has
all those feelings pent up inside looking for an outlet, and be sure you
invite those feelings later, even if it means a meltdown. And for this strategy to be effective,
you have to resist using it except in “emergencies.” While a peaceful
Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s may qualify as an emergency, the
supermarket check-out line probably doesn’t, simply because it happens
so often, and your child will learn how to use it to extort bribes. It’s better in the long run to just to walk away and leave your shopping cart than to use a bribe once your child is demanding one.
What if you’ve been using material bribes, like toys,
to get your child cooperating? I haven’t seen research that this does any harm if it’s time-limited and very specific, such as small prizes for potty training. True, your child is learning to manage his body’s urges because he wants
another piece to his train set. But he is learning, and his new habit
will continue even after your bribes stop.
What about a more
general trend of paying your child off with small toys every time she
cooperates with you? You’re setting yourself up for extortion. What’s
more, you’re ignoring a red flag. Why does your child need a toy to
cooperate with you? Is she feeling a bit disconnected?
To dig yourself out of that hole, try an experiment. Dispense with the bribes, and substitute some giggly roughhousing every day for a
week. Your child will feel so motivated by her deepened connection to
you that her requests for bribes will just melt away. Because the
reward your child really wants is you.
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