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Why Bribing Kids Backfires

Taking responsibiity should be an intrinsic value.

Key points

  • We want kids to learn that, along with play, there are responsibilities attached.
  • Tips to gain a positive cooperation include explaining a logical reason for your request, making a chore into a game, and appropriate praise.

Mom asks her four-year-old to clean up his train set when he is done playing. He refuses.

She tries saying it calmly, hoping he will agree, but meets continued resistance. She quickly falls back on a pattern that seems to get some traction in their relationship: bribery. "If you clean up your toys, I will buy you that new Batman toy you wanted,” she offers. He ends up picking up a toy or two.

Though this pattern may bring some positive results at times, the approach has an inherent problem: This mom has actually trained her child to ignore her until she offers him a bribe. He may even hold out until the price is right.

There is also another negative piece to this interaction: Mom is teaching him that taking responsibility and cooperating are tied to a tangible reward, not an intrinsic value. We want kids to learn that along with play, there are responsibilities attached. Furthermore, it is important to do the right thing for their family's and their own benefit.

There is no question that getting kids to cooperate is really hard, and if you hit on a solution that seems to move things along, it’s easy to get stuck in a pattern.

Here are some tips for other responses that might lead to gaining cooperation more positively:

  • Explain a logical reason for your request. In this case, you might say, “Someone may step on your track and get hurt, or they might break it, and you won’t have it when you need it.”
  • Make a chore into a game. Kids would rather play than do chores. If you say, “You pick up the red toys, and I'll pick up the blue ones," it becomes more interesting.
  • Natural consequences can motivate your child. When you say, “If we clean up quickly, we’ll have more time to read books,” you may win cooperation. Children will move toward a pleasurable activity more easily.
  • Praise your child. Whenever they listen to your request, make sure to show approval. You might say, “I like the way you put your books on the shelf. You’re a good helper.”
  • Make sure to arrange your child's room so that each toy has a place. In this way, your child learns to be more organized, and the task of cleaning up doesn't seem so overwhelming.

The goal is for your child to learn that in life, along with play, there are responsibilities and chores you must do as you grow. These are linked to intrinsic awards. Your child feels like he's more grown-up and a good family member.

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