As an enlightened mom, I know that bribing a child to behave is as foolish as washing a kid's mouth out with soap. It's just that when I'm in the supermarket with my whining 3-year-old son, Julian, a pack of chocolate-chip cookies in exchange for some stress-free shopping doesn't seem like such a bad trade-off. And when my 7-year-old daughter, Charlotte, throws one of her "I hate my hair and I'm never going to school again" fits, I've been known to promise her an ice-cream sundae later just to get her out the door now.
I'm far from alone in doling out rewards. Lots of parents buy off their kids -- including my best friend, Jackie. "I can't believe what I give them for the sake of a little peace and quiet," she says, raising her voice to be heard over her bickering 3-year-old twin daughters in the background. She interrupts our conversation to say, "Hold on a sec. Girls, if you stop fighting and find your shoes, we'll have time to stop for doughnuts."
Bribes may seem harmless, but they aren't. "Bribery teaches children to expect rewards for basic behaviors," says David Gruder, Ph.D., a family therapist and author of The New IQ: How Integrity Intelligence Serves You, Your Relationships, and Our World.
A Briber's Story
My household is a case study. I ask Charlotte to start her homework. "Okay," she bargains, "but then I get to watch three Hannah Montana shows."
"Can you please help me pick up the Lincoln Logs?" I ask Julian.
"Yeah," he sighs heavily, adding, "if you give me chocolate."
All I wanted was a little cooperation, but instead I've schooled my kids in the art of extortion. Even more worrisome are the long-term effects of bribing. A University of Florida study published in The Journal of Research in Science Teaching revealed that grade-schoolers who were rewarded for answering simple questions became less certain of their abilities when compared with kids who didn't get anything. And University of Toronto research showed that 4- and 7-year-olds who were overpraised for being generous wound up sharing less with their buddies. "Bribes rob kids of the opportunity to feel good for doing the right thing," says Bette Alkazian, a licensed family therapist in Thousand Oaks, California. "Their teachers won't reward them to do schoolwork. Their bosses won't reward them to finish a project. So parents need to stop doing it."
Yikes. I never wanted to deprive my kids of anything, least of all their self-confidence. So I challenged myself to stop bribing for good. Since I knew it would be next to impossible to quit on my own, I turned to a few experts to set me on the path to recovery.
Bribe Buster #1: Make It Your Kid's Call
My first step was to come up with a game plan for dealing with my kids' recalcitrance, which invariably leads to a bribery breakdown on my part.
I asked Kathy Seal, coauthor of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child, how to get them to be more agreeable. Her advice: Give kids reasons for your rules, and let them see the result of not obeying them. "Children are more likely to behave if they feel they're doing something because they want to," Seal tells me.
Trying out the tactic It's a chilly day in Connecticut, but my daughter doesn't want to adjust her outfit (short skirt, sleeveless top) to fit the weather. When I tell her she needs to put on tights for her playdate, she replies, "My legs never get cold." Apparently her head and hands never get cold either, since she refuses to put on a hat and gloves. Charlotte's got her stubborn face on and is about to make a scene. Plus, we're in a rush. My mind wanders in a familiar direction: What sort of carrot can I dangle to get her to bundle up?
Then I remember Seal's approach and change course. Charlotte would agree to wear warm clothes if she understood how freezing it is outside, especially if she felt dressing properly was her idea, not mine. "Okay," I say. "Go outside for two minutes. If you're warm enough without a hat, tights, or gloves, you don't have to change before we go to Grace's house."
Charlotte dashes out to the backyard, eager to prove her point. I keep my eyes on the clock. Not a minute later I hear the door slam shut. "It's cold!" my daughter yells as she runs to her bedroom. "I'm gonna find my scarf, plus all that other stuff!"
Whoa. If the rest of my experiment has results like this, I'm sold.
Bribe Buster #2: Tune In to Your Child's Needs
Next, I spoke with Alkazian, who likens bribes to "behavioral Band-Aids" -- they might get your child to cooperate for the moment, but they won't heal the underlying problem. "Kids always have a reason for acting defiantly," she says. "They're trying to communicate something." A preschooler who has a tantrum on the way to swim class might fear that the pool will be too cold or that she'll get water in her eyes. By pinpointing what may be bugging her, you might be able to defuse it (such as having her take a warm shower first or buying her a pair of goggles) rather than paying her off (such as promising a trip to the toy store afterward).
Trying out the tactic It's Monday morning after a hectic weekend of social obligations and missed bedtimes. I need to get Julian ready for preschool, but he's sprawled out on the floor in tears. "I don't waaaannna go to school!" he shrieks. "Pleeeeaaase don't make me go!" I try to calm him with cheery talk about how much fun he's going to have with his friends, but he just cries harder.
Maybe my sweet-toothed son would get moving if I offered a post-school cupcake, I think. But then I focus on what's causing Julian's out-of-character display instead of how to squelch it. I notice that his cheeks are flushed, and his forehead feels suspiciously warm. "Do you feel like taking a nap?" I ask. He nods, falling asleep almost as soon as I put him down. By the afternoon, Julian has a fever of 102?F. Lesson learned: Always check the vitals before deciding my kid is merely misbehaving.
Bribe Buster #3: Take Care of Yourself
Another mistake I'd been making was focusing too much on my children's demands and not enough on my own needs. "Stressed-out parents are more apt to resort to payoffs if they're too exhausted to think of a different solution," says parent coach Roni Stein, Ed.D. Her philosophy: If you recharge your own batteries regularly, you'll find better ways to deal with your kids.
Trying out the tactic It's been a lousy day (among the highlights: car trouble, an emergency run to school to deliver a forgotten lunch, and a nightmarish pediatric dentist appointment), and I've got hours to go before bedtime. I'd love to make it to the gym or, better yet, sneak out for a restorative spa treatment. But I don't have that luxury, so I decide to heed Dr. Stein's advice and treat myself to a "mini-pampering moment" (definition: anything I like to do that takes no more than five minutes, from doing a yoga pose or two to writing an e-mail to a friend). The idea is to feed my self-preservation parking meter a quarter at a time instead of tossing in a handful of change all at once.
I get my opportunity when Charlotte, who's doing her homework, finally hits her stride and stops asking questions. (Julian sticks to coloring contentedly by himself.) Ordinarily I would squander this rare quiet moment by fretting about my need to clean the kitchen or pay bills. Instead, I relax with a magazine until Charlotte becomes frustrated by a math problem. The little respite boosts my mood. Instead of my usual cave-in approach (agreeing to let her skip a bath if she completes the assignment without further fuss), I'm Zen enough to joke about my arithmetic struggles as a kid. This breaks the tension, and soon Charlotte finishes up. And I start running the tub.
Bribe Buster #4: Eliminate the Triggers
I'd made progress, but I wasn't ready to stop. So I phoned Dr. Gruder back in the hope of reversing the endless delays and deal-making that go on during morning madness ("No late pass and we can pick up a new Miley poster later!"). These are the toughest bribes to reverse, he warned, because the same high-stress situations tend to cause you to break down. The key is to change the pattern. "If you can't think of what to do in place of a bribe, simply abstain from offering one and come up with a more positive alternative later," he says.
Trying out the tactic Getting Charlotte up -- and moving -- is a constant struggle. One evening I chat with her about how much smoother things would go if we set the alarm 15 minutes earlier: She wouldn't have to wolf down her breakfast in the car and could spend more time fixing her hair
I tell her that if she gets ready early, she can do something fun with the extra time, like crazy dancing to loud music. That last part strikes me as a bit "bribe-esque," but experts tell me little incentives offered in advance (as opposed to when a kid goes into full freak-out mode) are an acceptable form of positive reinforcement.
I expect resistance when the alarm clock buzzes the next morning, but there is none. Charlotte is ready with five minutes to spare. I'm a little disappointed that she chooses to squander it watching SpongeBob instead of crazy dancing. But you pick your battles, and I've won the war: We arrive before the late bell all week.
A month into rewards rehab, I can honestly say that I've kicked the bribing habit. My kids, though, are having serious withdrawal. At times their whining and recalcitrance seem worse than ever, which doesn't surprise Dr. Gruder. "When a parent stops bribing, children's first instinct is to try to restore what they're used to," he says. "But they'll learn to adjust as long as you stick to your guns."
That's exactly what I'm doing. Now when Charlotte and Julian get grumpy in the grocery store, I don't detour to the cookie aisle. Instead, I offer them healthy snacks I've brought along. I ignore their protests, and I think about my next "mini-pampering moment": watching House after they go to sleep. It's just an innocent little bribe -- to myself -- for good behavior.
How You Can Cheat
While bribes are bad, it's totally fine to provide an incentive for your child to behave well. "An incentive is something you offer before a confrontation, so it's about positive reinforcement, not bribing," says Lori J. Semel, M.D., a pediatrician in Mount Vernon, New York. The way you phrase it can make all the difference.
Bribe: "Stop screaming, and I'll buy you some candy when we get to the checkout aisle."
Incentive: "We're going to the grocery store. If you're patient while we shop, you'll get two extra books before bedtime tonight."
Bribe: "If you stop shoving Hannah away and let her share your markers, I'll let you watch an extra hour of TV later."
Incentive: "If you share your art supplies nicely with Hannah, we can ask her to come back for another playdate tomorrow."
Bribe: "I know you don't like the dentist. But if you calm down, we'll get some new fish at the pet store afterward."
Incentive: "Get dressed quickly, and we might have time to stop and see the puppies before we go to the dentist."
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Parents magazine.