Bribing Kids for Good Behavior

Lots of parents do it, but bribing your children can backfire.

From the WebMD Archives

"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."


The Difference Between Bribery and Rewards

So, if bribery is bad, what about rewards? What's the difference between the two?

Bribery is offered during bad behavior to make it stop or in anticipation of bad behavior, says Pantley. A reward is applause for a job well done and can help encourage future good behavior. "For example," Pantley says, "it's a bad idea to offer an ice cream cone to a child who is having a tantrum about leaving the park. But getting ice cream on the way home to celebrate good behavior at the park is a good way to encourage future good behavior."

Pantley suggests that certain behaviors -- good manners or proper personal hygiene, for example -- should simply be expected. But rewards might help when a child tries to overcome past behavioral problems, works hard in the face of difficulty, or displays extra thoughtfulness.

Shelly Jefferis, who parents three children in Valencia, Calif., says she tries to shy away from bribes. But she and her husband will occasionally slip their kids a $1 reward when they do something special without being asked. "We try not to make a habit of it, though, so they don't come to expect it."

But not everyone agrees that there is such a big difference between bribery and rewarding behavior.

"In our parenting model," says Adams, "both rewards and punishments are controlling ways of raising children." Although rewards may sound preferable, she argues, they're just the flip side of punishment and don't produce lasting change. Bribing children and doling out rewards can prompt temporary compliance, she adds, but they don't foster decision making skills, competency, or autonomy.

And skills of self-discipline are critical as children move into the world, say the authors of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child: Help Your Child Become More Responsible, Confident, and Resilient: "A large body of research has demonstrated that children who can resist temptation ... fare significantly better than their more impulsive peers when they enter their adolescent years. For example, one research team measured preschool children's ability to resist an attractive snack when requested to do so. Those who resisted better as preschoolers were significantly more likely to do better as adolescents in terms of measures such as school success, mental health, and avoiding the juvenile justice system."

So if bribes -- and even rewards -- aren't the best option, then what's the alternative?


Alternatives to Parenting Bribes

There are several ways to prompt good behavior. You can break the bribe-and-chide pattern. The first question to ask is does your child really know the right thing to do? And what has she learned from watching and listening to you?

Treat your kids as you would other people in your life, says Adams, whose late husband, Thomas Gordon, PhD, founded one of the first skill-based training programs for parents in 1962. Model good behavior. Or, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, be the change you want to see in your family. If your child is afraid of new activities, for example, then try something new yourself. At age 61, Gordon is taking swimming lessons for the first time -- something she's terribly afraid of. "I'm amazed at the model this is for other people, including my daughter, who is 41."

Here are a few other ways to communicate with your kids and encourage good behavior:

  • Use active listening, without taking your child's problems on as your own. Just listen -- without offering reassurance or solutions. "That's powerful," says Adams. "It says, 'You like me just the way I am.'"
  • Use "I" language -- and not just when there's a problem: "I feel upset because I don't like to wait" or "I like the way the dining room table looks." Communicating in this way is self-revealing, without blaming or judging the other person, says Adams.
  • When you have a conflict with your child, first focus on the need, not the solution, says Adams. For example, both you and your teen may want to get somewhere -- you both have a need for transportation. But the family car isn't the only solution.
  • Lock in genuine empathy before you have a consequence, says Fay. This allows you to discipline a child without being mean.
  • Provide regular, specific, positive feedback and encouragement. For a day or two, see if you can come up with more positive remarks than negative ones. Then notice any changes in behavior. You just might be surprised.
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD on May 28, 2008



Jim Fay, co-founder of

Elizabeth Pantley, author of Kid Cooperation: How to Stop Yelling, Nagging, and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate.

Linda Adams, president and CEO, Gordon Training International.

Brooks, R. and Goldstein, S. Raising a Self-Disciplined Child: Help Your Child Become More Responsible, Confident, and Resilient, McGraw Hill, 2007.

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