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Health & Parenting

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Bribing Kids for Good Behavior

Lots of parents do it, but bribing your children can backfire.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD

"Daddy, what do we get if we're good in the store?" Parenting expert Jim Fay could hardly wait for the response. He pushed his grocery cart a little closer and heard dad say, "You get a happy family, that's what you get." Smiling, Fay walked over and patted the man on the back.

That time, dad had resisted the temptation to bribe his kids for good behavior. Chances are, though, things hadn't always gone so smoothly. After all, bribing kids for good behavior is a tactic commonly used by many parents.

Parenting Bribes: The Problem With Bribing Kids for Good Behavior

Candy, toys, money, entertainment: What's the harm of a parenting bribe? After all, who isn't motivated by a little incentive? Several parenting experts told WebMD that giving in to kids with parenting bribes isn't as harmless as it sounds. Founder of the Love and Logic philosophy of parenting (, Fay says that bribes -- and sometimes even rewards -- can send unspoken, but powerful, messages like these to kids:

  • You don't want to have good behavior.
  • You're not capable of good behavior without bribery.
  • Good behavior is only important to adults.

In essence, when you're giving bribes, says Linda Gordon, president and CEO of Gordon Training International, the child gets the following message: "That activity must not have any intrinsic value -- you must have to pay me to get me to do it."

Although the bribe can produce short-term results -- stopping temper tantrums or getting a kid to do homework -- it can also "up the ante," setting up a continuous cycle of crying and bad behavior, says Elizabeth Pantley, parenting educator and author of Kid Cooperation: How to Stop Yelling, Nagging, and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate. The more you bribe, though, the more you have to fall back on it -- just as you might feel forced into constantly treating a food-motivated golden retriever.

Bribes fail to teach kids respect and responsibility, says Fay. In place of respect and responsibility, many of today's kids are cultivating a sense of entitlement, which is a "prescription for a lifetime of unhappiness." Fay attributes this shift to a complex cultural milieu that includes conflicting messages from the media and emphasis on a child-centered environment that's focused on protection, rescue, and rewards.

"With both parents working, many are looking for quick fixes and feel guilty about not spending more time with their kids," Fay says. "So they try to mitigate that feeling by giving them stuff. Kids have been given so much that they don't feel they have to work for anything." Fay adds that parents today spend 500% more on their kids than parents a generation ago did -- and that's adjusted for inflation. "Kids today don't have any idea what parents had to do to earn this money."

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