Is it Okay to Bribe My Kids?

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Child eats ice-cream

Let’s be honest, we’ve all done it. We’ve all bribed our children at one point or another. Sometimes the bribes come in planned, well thought out, elaborate charts and token economies, while other times they are simply a pleading last ditch effort to get some compliance. We promise a sticker on the chart, a piece of candy or even money. Ultimately, our purpose is the same in each instance. We want compliance.

The Pettit Lake Challenge

At the close of our recent family camping trip to the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, I issued a bride to my children as we got in the car to drive home. I presented it under the guise of a “challenge.” I called it the “Smithson Pettit Lake Challenge.” Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it worked, but it didn’t work.

The challenge was this… “If you guys can go the whole way back to Twin Falls without teasing, whining or fighting with each other in the car, we will stop for ice-cream in Twin Falls.” They excitedly said, “Okay, we can do that!”

I must say, it was a pleasant car ride. Each of my kids found things to do during the trip and got along with each other without a hitch.

They pulled it off but moments after our ice-cream stop, the teasing began. I asked, “What happened guys? We had something great going with not teasing each other the whole way here. Why are you having a hard time not teasing now?” My 8 year old spoke up without missing a beat and said, clearly and honestly, “We already got the reward, so there’s no longer any motivation to do it.”

[Tweet “My 8 year old said, “We already got the reward, so there’s no longer any motivation to do it.””]

There it is, from the mouth of an 8 year old boy. He summed up what bribes and rewards do and what they do not do.

I thought to myself, “Wasn’t the peaceful, fun way we interacted the whole trip reward enough to make them want to continue that behavior?” I realized that I had cheapened the natural reward by introducing an artificial reward for the desired behavior. He didn’t learn to get along with his brothers better. He simply held out for ice-cream.

Does this mean that there is no place for rewards? Not necessarily, but they are often overused, used in the wrong situations or they are expected to teach things that they do not teach. We need to understand what rewards are good for, and what they will or will not do. Rewards will not teach honesty, integrity, self-regulation or kindness. They will not teach a child to value cleanliness or even help them create healthy habits. However, they may help you get your child to be quiet for a specific period of time, get them to clean up their room or train them to balance a ball on their nose.

What bribery or even rewards/reinforcement does do:

Rewards or “bribery” can provide immediate incentive for finite, concrete tasks. The “Pettit Lake challenge” motivated my kids to behave a certain way for a short period of time in the car. Dan Pink, the author of the New Your Times Best Selling Book “Drive,” reports several varied studies that tell us that rewards such as stickers, candy and money work, but they only work to increase or improve performance with simple physical tasks. The moment a task requires any analytical, cognitive or emotional intelligence, rewards actually have a negative effect on performance and outcomes. You can listen to his entire TED talk below to better understand these claims.

What bribery or rewards/reinforcement or even punishment does not do:

The problems with trying to motivate, teach or get our children to comply through the use of bribery, rewards or fear of punishment are many. The following are a few of the reasons bribery doesn’t work with most of what we want to teach our children.

  • It decreases their inner drive or natural motivation.
  • It can actually lower their performance.
  • It blocks creativity.
  • It encourages deceit to gain the reward without the effort. (Do anything to get the reward)
  • It increases short-term thinking rather than encouraging anticipation of consequences and long term benefits.
  • Focus is removed from the meaning, purpose and value of the act or achievement and replaced with external rewards.
  • Finally, continuation of using rewards to gain compliance or task completion, desensitizes children to the value of the reward over time and causes them to require greater rewards to get the same results.

So is bribery effective or okay to use? The answer is no and yes (when used sparingly.) There may be moments when bribery and rewards are helpful and valuable to get a specific task done more quickly in a specific instance. But, it is not an effective strategy for teaching our children positive skills and behavior and building relationships. We can’t expect it to positively change behavioral patterns or attitudes over time. It should be used sparingly and in conjunction with individual simple tasks.

Question: What are other ways you have found to motivate your child other than rewards?

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