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Bribing kids to get them to do what you want is something every parent is tempted to do from time to time, but it quickly snowballs into a serious problem. It typically begins innocently enough: a frustrated parent, stressed out and running low on patience, offers a child some reward just to make whatever problem they are experiencing go away. And it works: the child falls into line. The problem is that this sets a precedent: you’ve learned a handy trick that can bypass all the normal parenting hassles, and your kids have learned an excellent way to get you to shower them with riches. So it happens again–and again, and again, and again.

Before long you’ve entered into a mob-like extortion racket, one that requires you to pay children off just to earn their compliance and get them to act like decent human beings.

What’s wrong with bribing children?

On multiple occasions I’ve come across parents who say, “What’s wrong with a little bribe so long as it works?” There are many things wrong with using bribery as a form of behavior management:

1. The first problem is that bribery only +appears+ to work. Like running up a credit card bill, you may avoid immediate pain, but you’re paying for each act of bribery down the road, even if you don’t realize it at the time. In the same way that giving in to a child’s tantrums only encourages more of them later, bribing children is a way of bypassing the more difficult tasks in parenting, which digs a deeper deficit each time you do it. It also lets children know that bad behavior works, which only encourages more of it.

2. Bribing children takes away your parental authority and places it in the hands of your children. You’re undermining your own authority with each act of bribery, giving them all the leverage. They’re the ones calling the shots; the ones in a position of power. They’re setting the agenda, and you’re left pleading and bargaining to earn their compliance.

3. Rewarding children for doing what’s expected of them sends the wrong message and sets a bad moral precedent. You want a child’s behavioral control to come internally from within, not be dependent upon outside influences. Engaging in socially appropriate behavior and living with the periodic disappointment shouldn’t be something kids are paid to do, but something kids are expected to do. Bribing sends the message that a child’s desires come first, and others owe them whenever they’re unhappy.

4. As previously alluded to, bribery usually escalates to the point where children are extorting you just to behave themselves. They may not know what ‘extortion’ means, but they instinctually know how to use this leverage to their advantage.

The difference between incentives & bribes

One of the reasons parents might fail to see the problem with bribery is that it can resemble the positive incentives all parents use to motivate kids. The line between bribery and reward is often thin and ambiguous, but the distinctions matter.

Bribery is +reactive.+ It’s an incentive given in the heat of the moment to encourage kids to do what you need them to do. Incentives, on the other hand, are outlined well in advance. The rules are clear and they are set at a neutral time when kids are not misbehaving. Incentives also typically address broader patterns of behavior. They depend not on a particular act but meeting certain goals. Bribery is just the opposite; paying kids in a specific instance without regard for their broader behavior.

Because bribery is reactive, it is typically offered in response to bad or non-compliant behavior. Which means it has the effect of incentivizing bad behavior. Incentives, on the other hand, are offered to a child who takes the initiative to engage in positive behavior.

Breaking the Habit: How To Stop Bribing Children

Once you’ve fallen into a pattern of bribery, breaking this habit won’t be easy. Your kids have grown accustomed to this extortion racket, and you can be assured they’re going to put up resistance. You’re now trying to change these unwritten rules, taking away their position of power and changing a system that’s been quite lucrative for them.

Older children may even see this as a declaration of war and begin formulating a plan to punish you into changing your tune. You can’t be swayed by this. The stronger their reaction, the deeper the hole you’ve dug for yourself, and the more desperately change is needed. Here are some tips that will make this adjustment easier:

1. Bribing children has been a way of avoiding parenting. So now that you’ve made the decision to stop bribing, it helps to have a plan in place for handling these situations. So sit down and write a list of all the situations you can recall when you’ve recently offered a bribe. After you have this list, jot down a few notes about each situation, such as where it occurred, what it was over, and how the child was behaving.

For each incident, come up with a list of non-incentive reasons kids should listen. What are your reasons for requesting this in the first place? How is their non-compliance affecting others (including them)? What logical consequences can you instill? How will you respond if a child protests? What leverage do you have that would get them to comply? Be prepared to respond to these situations ahead of time, and you’ll be in a better position to do so.

2. Start on a Friday evening or some other time when you don’t have a packed schedule. This way you’re better equipped to deal with the meltdowns that might occur. Just don’t use this tip as an excuse to keep putting off change. There will never be a perfect time, and the longer you wait, the harder it will get.

3. Have a talk with your children about this problem and your plans to fix it. Explain that you’ve gotten into a bad habit of giving them rewards to get them to listen or do what you ask, and this needs to change. Tell them why this is an issue that concerns you. Then briefly address the following topics:

  • Young kids may not comprehend what bribing means, so give them some examples from past experience.

  • Make it clear that you’re not going to be offering rewards to get them to do what’s expected of them anyway. Again provide examples of the type of things that are expected of them.

  • Explain what will happen if they fail to listen, starting with a verbal warning, then a specific consequence.

4. Sometimes it helps make for a smoother transition if you implement some type of formal incentive system in place of bribery. (See our section on incentive systems for children.) This way kids are less likely to feel as though you’re taking something away. Just make sure you set these up so that you’re rewarding positive change rather than incentivizing bad behavior. You can’t simply switch to some sort of point-based incentive system and then bribe kids with points to get them to fall in line.

Staying strong in the moment

As Mike Tyson is fond of saying, ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,’ and the battle to end bribery is fought in the trenches. All the planning in the world does no good if you can’t hold firm when children ‘punch you in the mouth’ so to speak during situations where you otherwise might be inclined to offer a bribe. So here are some thoughts that might help you stand your ground:

1. Think about what a pain your child is being right now. Do you really want to reward them for acting like a twerp? Do you want them to act like this much more often in the future? That’s what you’re doing when you bribe kids to fall into line. Remember this when you’re tempted to do so.

2. Think about the guilt you’re avoiding by refraining from offering bribes, and how proud you’ll be later for standing your ground.

3. In lieu of a bribe, express your feelings. Speak from your heart to tell kids what you’re feeling: “It really upsets me when you act like this, and making me unhappy doesn’t leave me very inclined to make you happy.” Or you might tell them: “You’re making me feel sad and embarrassed right now. Is that your goal? It bothers me that you’re so concerned with what you want that you don’t seem to care about anyone else’s feelings.”

Just say exactly what’s on your mind, in appropriate ways, of course. Parents underestimate the power of blunt emotional honesty. Children may be a bit more egocentric, but they’re social creatures nonetheless, and emotional carrots and sticks can be just as powerful as material ones.

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