Bribing Kids

“Katie, if you’ll just stop crying and behave, I’ll buy you a piece of candy!”

Most of us have heard something along these lines while in the grocery store checkout from the mouth of an embarrassed parent desperately trying to calm her child.

Many parents have used some sort of bribing technique to motivate their children to behave, perhaps out of distress or because they know it will be a quick fix. But are they beneficial – or can they cause more harm than good?

How far to take it?

While a bribe might be useful in creating family harmony, “it’s a temporary fix – and really, we need to focus on creating family harmony by respect, not by paying a child off,” believes Ohio mom Kim Mitchell.

But bribing or incentives also are used to reward children for good behavior.

“It works for certain things. However, we noticed that if it’s used too much, kids tend to expect something in return for things that normally need to be done anyway … like chores or being good, for example,” says Mitchell.

Some parents, educators, and other individuals see some of these practices as being helpful for parent and child. Telling your child that you will get them a new toy or give them money for exhibiting some form of good behavior provides an incentive not only for them to do what you want, but also to do their best for themselves.

The pitfalls

However, Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, has concerns about the practice.

“If parents need to bribe their kids to listen, that is indicative of the problem that they aren’t the boss of their own home,” says Herman. “Part of the breakdown is that parents aren’t providing negative consequences when kids don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

To encourage kids to behave, whether there is a reward or not, it is important for them to be able to see beyond the reward and understand that they should do something simply because it is the right thing to do, Herman says.

Use with caution

For Ferndale mom Shannon Werenka, a little treat simply makes life easier.

“My 3-year-old never willingly leaves the park, but if I tell her that I will give her an organic sucker when she gets home, she runs right over to the stroller and hops in – no meltdowns,” says Werenka. “I’m happy, she’s happy, the other people at the park are happy.”

But, she adds, “if every time your child has a meltdown you bribe them with a cookie to get them to stop, then yes, it encourages them to behave badly. I think it’s all about balance – if you use bribery constantly, it’s going to stop being effective.”

Mitchell concurs.

“If used correctly, bribery rewards can help children learn independence and desire,” she says. “My 8-year-old was given an allowance for doing chores around the house, and lately she’s been asking what else she can do to earn money – because there’s something she really wants to buy.”

Herman clarifies: “The distinction is earning things. If you earn something, the work has been done … you do what you’re supposed to do and good things come out of it.”


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