Once upon a time, I said I would never bribe my children.
After all, bribing was for fools; for the moms who didn’t know how to truly manage their children.
Then I become a mother of four. And now I know that the woman who formerly shunned bribing was the one being foolish. Now, I’m all about the strategic bribe.
Do I feel guilty about my bribing tactics? Yes, on occasion. Am I going to stop? Most definitely not.
Bribing in some regards teaches children to choose what they are willing to work for.
For starters, the traditional definition of bribe according to my dictionary is “to persuade [someone] to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement.”
Well that isn’t exactly what I’m doing. I’m not bribing my kids in an illegal or dishonest way. My methods are much more tame. They involve an exchange of sorts. I’ll say something like, “When your dinner plate is clean, you may choose a little sweet from the treat box.” In that instance, I’m persuading my child to act in my favor—getting them to eat their healthy dinner—by offering a “gift” that they find favorable: dessert. No harm, no foul.
Now, some parents have resorted to the money avenue, like American Ninja Warrior Morgan “Moose” Wright who pays his kids to exercise. Not only is this father of two leading by example when it comes to physical fitness, he is motivating his kids with a potentially hefty allowance in exchange for a gym routine that leaves me tired just thinking about it!
Then again, if I had $60 or more a week on the line, I’d probably be planking my heart out right now instead of munching on my own pilfered sweet from our family’s treat box!
So, we’ve got a mom (me) who is seeing more and more clean dinner plates and a dad (Wright) who has kids chasing after fitness…all because of bribing. So my answer to the question “Is bribing bad?” is a confident “No, bribing is not bad”—as long as you go about it in a reasonable way.
Bribing has gotten a bad rap over the years since it is associated with manipulation. So although I confess to bribing my children every now and again, I honestly feel like I’m more strategically managing the flow and behavior within our home.
Again, I tell myself, “Nothing I’m doing is illegal or dishonest!” My kids are often acting in my favor as a means to an end or to learn a lesson; things I hope they intrinsically adopt and apply without a bribe in the future. For me, it’s all about having a conversation and learning as we go.
For example, sometimes a bribe is as simple as putting on your coat before we leave the house. Why? So you don’t get wet when it rains. The payoff isn’t candy or money, but it is a benefit to my child. And they learn that through trial and error. Because yes, when they opt not to engage in the “bribe,” they suffer the consequences.
This is where I’ve started to question whether bribing is the correct term given the circumstances. Is what I’m actually doing bribing, or am I just applying a negotiating or bargaining tool? Those are positive life skills and something I feel is worth practicing with my kids for their sakes. It doesn’t mean they’ll always “win,” but throughout life they’ll have countless opportunities to converse about situations, present their ideas, and work toward an equally favorable goal.
That’s something I definitely want my kids to get experience with, and if it starts with me, all the better! I want to be the one who practices these skills with them because I know I always have their best interest at heart. And in the real world, that might not always be the case. At home, we can bribe, bargain, negotiate, and learn together in a safe environment. If that isn’t reason enough to jump-start bribing (or whatever you want to call it), I don’t know what is!
Life is hard and sometimes a bribe to get through the day is all I got.
Here are five other reasons to start bribing your kids. Read on to determine whether bribing is something you already leverage to your benevolent-parent advantage or whether it’s something you might consider doing with your kids now that you know the benefits.
1. Bribing gets results.
“Truthfully, we all work for something. It’s a matter of choosing the right motivators. Bribing in some regards teaches children to choose what they are willing to work for,” says family coach Calvalyn Day.
We can all apply this question in our daily lives: “What am I willing to work for?” In adulthood, it might be getting through X number of emails before getting up for a hot cup of coffee. For a young child, it might be calmly having their diaper changed and then moving on to something fun like a puzzle or favorite book.
Bottom line, bribing gets results. Read emails, changed diapers, you name it. It’s progress.
We offer big time bribes for good attitudes and smiles. A threat of discipline would probably cause some tears…
Jeannette G., a soon-to-be mom of two from Washington, says, “[Bribing is] totally how we got [my daughter] to start using the potty at home. I try not to bribe for everyday things (because the habit becomes unbreakable and everything becomes a negotiation). But, life is hard and sometimes a bribe to get through the day is all I got.”
Amen to that, sister!
2. Bribing cuts down on punishment.
On a daily basis, parents are faced with potentially negative experiences with our children. Sometimes they wake up on the wrong side of the bed—and sometimes we do. Throughout the day there are constant opportunities for punishments and consequences.
Humans, like pigeons and lab rats, respond to being incentivized.
Sometimes for small things, like a toddler throwing food at the table. Sometimes bigger things, like a preschooler not telling the truth.
Tasha B., a mom of two from Illinois, gives a perfect example of how bribing can cut down on punishment. “The times my husband and I utilize bribes/incentives are when we would like to have above-average behavior from our children and the alternative of discipline would have a negative impact on the event.
“For instance, family pictures. We offer big-time bribes for good attitudes and smiles. A threat of discipline would probably cause some tears, which would not be preferred for pictures. Bribes and incentives definitely have a time and place.”
3. It mirrors the adult world.
David Ezell, a psychotherapist at Darien Wellness in Connecticut, shares that the traditional use of the word bribe implies “that positive reinforcement is a negative.” He relates this to the adult world by saying, “I suppose I am being ‘bribed’ by my salary” and that I, as a writer, am potentially being bribed by your readership, shares, likes, etc.
And you know what? He’s right! Every single day, you and I accept bribes of various sorts in exchange for our work, attention, and energy. Although the term bribery has negative connotations, this is a totally normal part of life that our children can learn now and apply as they grow.
“Rewarding children to meet objectives is part of the bigger picture of incentivizing behavior,” says Ezell.
Spend some time setting up the afternoon routine to include homework or chores before television.
“Humans, like pigeons and lab rats, respond to being incentivized—always have and always will. And if I have a client tell me they ‘tried it’ and it did not work, I tell them the reward was not big enough. We all respond to kind words, pleasant expressions, nice environments, and rewards for work done well.”
4. It creates a system of routine.
In our home, we have certain expectations, especially when it comes to chores, which present a prime opportunity for bribing. One thing leads to another and in the end, we function in harmony. Well, for the most part. I promise, we are a real family with real struggles!
On the note of routine, Day shares that instead of traditional bribing she “encourage[s] parents to consider motivating children.” So, when you think “bribe,” exchange your verbiage and attitude to align more with principles of motivation.
“For example,” Day says, “if you know that your child enjoys TV time in the evening, spend some time setting up the afternoon routine to include homework or chores before television. Then when your kids complain about wanting to plop down in front of the screen, you can simply say, ‘When you’re done with [X,] you can watch TV. This is a little mindset trick that helps kids ultimately be self-motivated to do their work before play, but it keeps parents from being in the position of extrinsically motivating them all the time, which can get out of hand.”
Particularly working with children who are prone to defiance, giving them choices at the very least reduces power struggles.
Bianca T., a mom of three who lives outside of Seattle, Washington, says that this kind of bribing motivation, “depends on the age and personality of each child,” which totally makes sense. Bribing is not a cookie cutter way to parent!
She further explains that, “I’ve reframed it more [as] a reward versus a bribe. I tend to give little candy treats during the day when we are out for being caught doing good, and usually if that adds up to great attitudes during boring errands we find a ‘treat’ (it could be food, experience, listening to the Moana soundtrack for the 15 millionth time) as a reward.”
5. It gives kids the power of choice.
Here’s the thing about bribes. Your child doesn’t have to opt for what you’re offering. Crazy, I know! If the stakes aren’t high enough or your offer doesn’t sway them, they can say no. It may leave you feeling up a creek without a paddle, but it teaches them a valuable lesson. They hold the power in terms of what comes next.
Day reenforces this idea, saying, “Choice in and of itself is a strong motivator. Particularly working with children who are prone to defiance, giving them choices at the very least reduces power struggles, but can actually empower them to advocate for themselves.”
And don’t we all want our children to advocate for themselves? To gain the vocabulary and reasoning skills to communicate what they need?
Of course, as parents we also have the power of choice. We choose when bribery comes into effect and what options are available. In the end, our kids need to understand that we are the authority, but in situations of defiance, I make it my goal to seek options that will leave us both appeased.
When all is said and done, the goal of a bribe is to build intrinsic motivation in a positive way so children naturally choose to make the best decisions on their own.
If bribing becomes a minute-by-minute habit, it has gone too far.
You don’t want your kids asking for a piece of candy in exchange for brushing their teeth! But if it is a reasonable means to an end—let’s say “You practice tying your shoes for five minutes every day and then we can pick out new, extra fast running shoes at the mall together”—it makes sense.
As adults, we have the opportunity for near-constant reward in exchange for our positive behavior. Shouldn’t we create a similar world for our kids?
As long as we’re using each situation as a teaching opportunity, bribing can be a valuable tool for everyone involved.