Should You Bribe Your Kids?

Bribes work in the short-term but aren't teaching good long-term lessons

girl holding cookie

Who hasn't promised their kids a treat, toy or activity if they will just behave, stop crying or try the new food that Grandma put on their plate? Most parents occasionally fall into the trap of bribes as a disciplinary tactic. Sometimes we use bribes to avoid embarrassing or disruptive events in public or sometimes we are just tired and overwhelmed and are sick of arguing with our kids. But does bribing or "rewarding" a child truly work?

Bribes Work in the Short-Term

Parents routinely tell their kids that if they will go to the store with them and stay in the grocery cart seat without a fuss then they will let them pick out some candy or treat when checking out. Then they hang the "reward" over the youngster's head every time the kid reaches out in the aisles or starts to whine. As long as the child remains at least mostly-civil, the dangling carrot is then bestowed at the end of the trip.

The problem with a bribe, however, is that kids are quite smart. It doesn't take them long to figure out that a reward in the form of a treat or toy should be given every time they go to the store with a parent. And that's the problem with this short-term discipline fix. In the end, the kid is controlling the parent by choosing whether to behave or not. As these kids get older, they may actually begin to demand rewards and with bigger price tags.

Think About Your Incentive

Child experts recommend that offering a child an incentive can be okay, within reason. The key is to not tie it into food or a purchased item. Rather, it should be something like an outing to the park, playing a favorite game back at home, or getting to stay up 10 minutes later before going to bed.

Plus, rather than offering a reward (a.k.a. "bribe") at the store, turn it around by outlining your expectations. For example, you can tell your child that your plans are to go to the grocery store and then put away all the food back at home. If your child behaves appropriately, you'll then head out to the park for some outdoor fun. If you do give rewards occasionally, Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, recommends allowing children pick their reward rather than the adult pushing it on them. When children make the decisions, they take more ownership and feel more proud of their behavior.

Resist Using the Word "Reward"

Instead of saying "reward" just outline appropriate behaviors. That leaves you with more room to delight your tot with an unexpected activity, or even a surprise trip to the snow cone stand. Then, all you have to say is that you were just so very proud of how he acted at a certain event or activity. This way, your child will clamor for your positive reinforcement and genuine happiness without expecting a certain reward at the end of the day. That puts you back in control of discipline, praise, and any special efforts you choose on behalf of your child. For older children or even preschoolers, if we explain to our children why we need their help with chores or why they shouldn't run around the grocery store, they may be more inclined to cooperate.

The goal is to teach problem solving and cooperative behavior instead of teaching kids that bribes and threats is how people work together. 

Use Praise as the Reward

A better way to "reward" your child is to give them specific praise about their behavior by focusing on the process the child went through to achieve the desired behavior and not merely the behavior itself.  For example, telling your child "I really liked the way you played by yourself and waited patiently for me to get off the phone because you understood that phone call was important." Telling your child you are proud of their kind thoughts and behavior will make them feel good and that feeling will last longer than any toy you pick up in a store.


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