Should You Bribe Your Kids?

Published Wednesday, April 6th, 2016
Should You Bribe Your Kids?
(image source: vintage storybook art, unknown source)

Mommy Perfect weighs in with common sense and experience on the oft debated parenting question, “Should You Bribe Your Kids?”

Parenting magazines, eggheaded sociologists, and new-age parents will tell you that bribing kids is a bad idea, that it will eventually backfire, that children can miraculously behave precisely how parents desire simply because they desire it.  I’ve heard this sentiment repeated often in print as well as the park bench, but guess what, its complete bullsh*t.  This hogwash comes from ivory tower philosophers hoping for a utopia that doesn’t exist.  Let’s talk reality.

Economists have long understood that you influence human behavior by establishing incentives and penalties; the carrot and the stick.  This is natural law, because it’s how the natural world functions.  It’s even hard-wired into our bodies and brains: eat calorie dense food like fats and sugars and your brains rewards you with a dopamine rush; touch a hot fire and your brain penalizes you with sensations of pain.  All of life and societies operate this way.

Children are not born knowing what society expects from them, what is good behavior from bad, or table manners.  If we expect these values to be understood by our kids then we must teach them; that’s our job as parents.  If you want your kids to be good, then you must teach them to be good.  We do this by example, and we do this by instruction.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

None of us would show up to work on Monday morning if there wasn’t a paycheck in it for us.  Incentive.  Who among us would pay our taxes if there wasn’t a threat of jail time for non-payment?  Penalty.  If adult behavior responds this way, why would children be any different?

To answer the salient question, yes, you should bribe your kids.  “Eat three bites of meat and you will get this bite of pie.”   Provide incentive for clearly understood achievement and always follow through with the promised reward.  This is absolutely vital.  If you break the trust even once the effort to parent will become 100x greater than it needs to be.  This truth applies to all higher mammals including humans.

A distinction should be made between a bribe for a clearly understood achievement and a reward for ceasing bad behavior.  Say your child is throwing a tantrum in the grocery store because you declined to buy a cookie — this is not a scenario where a reward should apply.  Do not promise to give them the cookie if they stop crying as this will only teach them to throw a fit next time with the expectation that they will be rewarded upon ceasing the crying.  I suggest that bad behavior would require either being ignored or garner a penalty, a figurative “stick”, but it must be administered immediately, not in the distance future because young brains don’t comprehend time as well as we do.  Banning TV when you get home is too far removed from the incident right now.  A scolding perhaps: “You are not getting the cookie, and I am not happy with you right now because you are being bad.”  Children are aware when their parents are not happy with them, and that can often be enough of a penalty.  Perhaps a sharp “HEY!” or a gently but abrupt squeeze on their arms.  I know many parents object to corporal punishment in any form (which I don’t mean to wade into at this time), but a gentle yet physical jolt can help to get their attention and make them know that you mean it.  The point is not to scar them or even to deliver pain, just make them aware of your displeasure and if they are in the midst a tantrum they may not hear your scolds, but they may feel an appropriately gentle squeeze on their arms.  Always be deliberative with penalties, never cruel.

As your children get older, it is entirely appropriate to incentivize not only good behavior but accomplishments as well.  If you catch your 10 year old being especially kind towards your 6 year old, take them aside, praise them, and give them a dollar.  If you want more of that behavior then you must reward it.  Pay them for good grades on their report card.  My system goes like this: A’s get $5, B’s get $3, C’s and D’s get nothing, any F’s get grounded for one week (no TV, video games, or sleep-overs).  A six-subject report card of all A’s would earn $30.  The children must be old enough though to have the concept of longer time spans and working towards far off goals — I think at least 8 years old, but depends on the child.  Clarification: I don’t pay for the grade on every assignment or test, only on report cards, but that would be up to you to determine.  Perhaps an especially important test is worthy of a bribe.  The bribe needn’t always be money, especially with younger ones, but any reward that the child desires: ice cream, TV or video game time, a trip to the park.

Teach and encourage your kids to negotiate on the price of the bribe.  We are preparing them for real life here so they may as well begin to learn how negotiation and deal making works.  My kids have become adept and accustomed to negotiating with us.  Early on I had to teach them how this works, but now they always try to “wheel and deal” with us.  I know so many adults who have no idea or even have an inclination on how to make offers and counter offers, whether buying on Craigslist or buying a house.

I also encourage them to identify jobs that need to be done and make me an offer to be paid for it.  These are budding entrepreneurial concepts: find a need, fill the need, get rewarded.  If they want to buy something, they need to look for a job that needs to be done, then make me an offer.  Yard needs to be raked, car needs to be washed, pantry reorganized; teach them to identify what needs to be done rather than you telling them what you want done.

Should everything in your household require payment?  I think not.  A home is not truly a free market economy because the kids don’t pay for rent or board.  We expect a certain amount of clearly defined and age-appropriate chores to be done as exchange for living here and being fed.

The purpose for bribing your kids to is incentivize behavior.  You are the economist and you are designing a system to develop the type of adults that you want your children to become.  Incentives and penalties are effective tools when utilized wisely and will make your job as parents easier and more satisfying.

Agree, disagree, have suggestions or a story of your own? Please share in the comments below.

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