Bribing Kids for Good Behavior
Lots of parents do it, but bribing your children can backfire.
The Difference Between Bribery and Rewards
So, if bribery is bad, what about rewards? What's the difference between the
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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.