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What's So Bad About Bribing Your Child?

Why does your child need a toy to cooperate with you?

"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

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

It's a well-accepted tenet of parenting that bribes are a bad idea, used only by desperate parents. But virtually all parents use them from time to time. So why do "experts" always give this advice?

1. Because children shouldn't be "rewarded" for behavior they should do anyway.

I 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, it 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.

Conclusion: Looking 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, by looking for a way to make the situation work for everyone. Don't offer the reward in the middle of misbehavior, because that trains kids to misbehave to force you to give them a reward. (What about physical incentives, like toys? See #4 below.)

2. Because when kids get older, they won't get rewards for doing what they're supposed to do.

Actually, 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 in the world, for themselves and for others. We empower them to find blankets.

Conclusion: Not a convincing reason to refrain from incentives. Again, the caveat holds that these incentives are established in advance, not pulled out under duress when a child is misbehaving.

3. Because when children are rewarded for a desired behavior (sharing, reading, eating broccoli), they actually do less of the behavior.

Now, 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. (Research shows that "good sharing!" makes kids share less, unless an adult is watching.)

This seems to be because rewards are so powerful they make kids focus on the reward as the benefit of what they assume is an "unpleasant" activity. 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!

Conclusion: Using bribes to manipulate kids to repeat a desired behavior is a control tactic that makes kids focus on the reward rather than helping them want to repeat the behavior. Luckily, there's an alternative. We can point out the result of the behavior and empower our child to decide if he wants to repeat it: "Sam looked so happy when you shared your truck with him!"

4. 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.

This is certainly true. 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 that 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.

Conclusion: 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 welcome 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 checkout 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 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 pay attention to his body's urges because he wants another piece for his train set. But he is learning a new habit that will continue even after your bribes stop, and habits are powerful in shaping behavior.

What about a more general trend of paying your child off with small toys every time she cooperates with you? Cooperation is too complicated to be shaped by a simple habit, since it's driven by emotions and how connected your child feels to you at the moment. That means you'll have to keep bribing over time. Besides, your child will quickly learn this new game and bargain harder, so 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. I predict that 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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