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Should Parents Bribe Their Children?

There is truth on both sides of the bribery question.

Last month, journalists Bruce Feiler and KJ Dell’Antonia engaged in an informal on-line debate on the question of whether parents should bribe their children.

Dell’Antonia described herself as an “unabashed briber.” She had successfully paid her four elementary school children to complete their assigned summer reading and planned more bribes for the school year. Feiler expressed misgivings. He noted the practical (and moral) complications of frequent bribes: They don’t work for very long, and children may begin to negotiate about everything they are asked to do. Feiler especially opposed monetary rewards, citing research that money tends to make all of us greedier and more selfish.

As in most parenting debates, there is truth on both sides of the bribery question.

Offering bribes or rewards to children for compliance with basic chores can help us get through the day with less argument and less stress, and this is no small thing. They can help when kids’ passive resistance is high—and when we are at our wit’s end. Increased cooperation with daily tasks then frees parents to engage more positively in other ways with their children (and with each other).

When we offer to do something children want (like taking them for ice cream or allowing them extra screen time) in return for helping us when they would rather be doing something else, this is not always a bribe. It can also be an expression of appreciation and an opportunity to teach the importance of reciprocity.

Rewards for cooperation are based on a basic principle of emotional maturity that all children should come to understand: Children earn privileges rather than demanding them. A system of earning also allows parents to move away from the threat of punishment (“If you don’t…, then you won’t be able to …”) to the principle of “when” or “as soon as.” This simple change of tone and grammar—from “if” to “as soon as”—often makes a dramatic difference in the cooperativeness of young children.

But when we are frequently giving rewards, or thinking about rewards as the solution to family problems, it is time to take a step back. We are likely to be treating symptoms without knowing causes (for example, when there is ongoing resistance to homework). We also risk losing sight of what is most important in how children learn cooperative behavior.

Research by psychologists Mary Parpal and Eleanor Maccoby demonstrated several decades ago that children learn to cooperate less through earning rewards and much more through learning reciprocity.

More recently, developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska observed two types of compliant behavior in young children. Some children showed what Kochanska called “committed” (vs. “situational”) compliance. These children cooperated willingly, with a positive feeling; their cooperation seemed to come “from inside.” For boys in these studies, committed compliance was internalized and led to the development of a “moral self” - a sense of themselves as moral individuals or “good” children. In contrast, situational compliance remained situational. Children’s good behavior was dependent on their mother’s continued presence and did not lead to the construction of a moral self.

If we take an enthusiastic interest in our children’s interests and engage with them often in problem-solving discussions and interactive play, we will build compliance in deeper, more lasting, ways. Over time, children then learn that our rules and requests are not arbitrary or capricious—that when we ask them to cooperate, we ask for a reason.

And we will need to resort to bribery less often.

Copyright Kenneth Barish, Ph.D.

Kenneth Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems. Pride and Joy is winner of the 2013 International Book Award.