Why Parents Shouldn't Bribe Kids

Bribing your child always backfires.
Betsie Van der Meer / Stone / Getty Images

Whether your child is screaming in the middle of the grocery store, or he’s misbehaving in front of your in-laws, you may be tempted to offer a quick bribe to make the bad behavior stop. But bribing your child is a bad idea. Bribes eventually backfire by creating more bad behavior.

The Difference Between Bribes and Rewards

There’s a big difference between a bribe and a reward. A bribe is when a treat is given in exchange for your child’s promise that he’ll be good after he receives it.

A reward is given after your child exhibits good behavior.

Giving a child a lollipop on the promise that he’ll “be good for the rest of the day,” is a bribe. Giving a child a lollipop at the end of the day because he behaved well all afternoon is a reward.

Bribes Send the Wrong Message

Rewards can prepare kids for the real world. After all, adults who go to work receive a reward in the form of a paycheck after they’ve performed the work. Rewarding children teaches them that privileges and extra incentives must be earned.

Bribes, on the other hand, send the wrong message. They show your child that he can get what he wants in life by promising to do the work later.

Bribes Aren’t Effective

When kids are given a treat in exchange for a promise that they’ll be good, they no longer have an incentive to behave. Once that incentive is gone, most kids will misbehave. So although your child may promise he’ll be go to bed good for you tonight if you give him an extra snack, he isn’t likely to follow through.

Bribes Don’t Lead to Intrinsic Motivation

Positive reinforcement helps kids feel good about themselves. Being rewarded for a job well done gives them a boost to their self-esteem and helps reinforce good choices.

Over time, tangible rewards can be phased out. So a parent who has been giving a child tokens for staying seated during dinner, can eventually replace the tokens with praise.

This can teach a child how to praise himself for his good work, which is a critical life skill.

Bribes, however, don’t have the same effect. A child may feel bad when he doesn’t deliver on his promise. Or, he may spend his time thinking about how to bribe his parents for more incentives, rather than feel good about his achievements.

Bribes Encourage Kids to Become Manipulative

Every time a child receives a bribe, the more he learns how to manipulate the situation. If you give your child a few bribes, he’s likely to start saying things like, “Give me what I want or I’ll be bad.” And if you refuse, he’s likely to follow through as a way to punish you for not giving into his demands.

Bribes Give Kids Too Much Power

Bribes take the power away from parents and give it to a child. When a parent says, “You can play on the computer an hour today but you have to promise to go to sleep tonight without any arguments,” a child may up the ante. He may respond by saying, “Make it two hours of computer time and you have a deal.”

A reward, however, says, “You can earn an hour of computer time tomorrow if you go to bed without any arguments tonight.” That type of reward shows a child that he has the option to focus on controlling his behavior, not his parents’ behavior.

Your Child May Bribe Other Kids

Bribing your child will teach him that he can get what he wants by bribing others. Sadly, he may end up saying things to friends like, “I’ll give you my cookies today if you promise to play with me at recess.”

Bribing other kids isn’t likely to help your child make any genuine friends. Instead, it may appear he’s trying to buy friends or manipulate them into doing what he says.

Alternatives to Bribes

There are many discipline strategies that are more effective than bribes. Use a token economy system or other reward system that will teach your child behavior management skills. When he breaks the rules, follow through with a negative consequence, such as taking away a privilege or placing him in time-out.

Continue Reading