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Do You Bribe Your Kids?

Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings,  I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!

Do You Bribe Your Kids?

Elisabeth Stitt

A client called frustrated because she had offered her 7th grader a bribe to do something she really wanted him to do that he was digging his heels in on, and now he was demanding that she give him something every time she asked him to do anything at all.  That's a problem!


Bribing is not a healthy way of getting your kids to do something.  It should not, however, be confused with providing incentives or negotiating.  Bribing is very black and white.  It assumes that the child will not do something unless you give her something.  That sets up a power play between child and adult, pitting child and adult against each other in a way that breaks down the warm connection the child needs with his parent in order to feel secure.  

With bribing, it is a lose lose solution whether the child accepts the bribe or not.  If the child accepts the bribe, he loses respect for his parent, and that puts a barrier between them; if she does not accept the bribe and refuses to do what her parent asks of her, the parent is left at square one and the child who may feel smug in the short run at thwarting her parent will ultimately feel adrift and insecure, knowing her parent is ineffectual.  Furthermore, as long as you care more than the child about what needs to happen, he has you over a barrel and will just demand more the next time (That's what happened to my client).  


 The time to provide an incentive is when you are offering the incentive as a sweetener for something you would like the child to do but are not requiring the child to do.  Let’s say, for example, that you would like your child to come with you when you go to post office to mail flyers for your business.  You know it would be much more convenient for you to send your child in to stand in line while you park the car.  On the other hand, this is something you are doing for your business and there will be no line if you go tomorrow morning.  Still, you’d like to get it off your to do list, so you offer an incentive—say stopping in at the hobby shop next to the post office—if your child comes along.  The main difference here is your nonchalance when your child chooses to stay home instead.  Because you are not insisting, you have not lost your power.  

The great thing about offering an incentive is that it can work both ways.  Your child can also offer you an incentive when she wants something.  For example, my daughter knew that there was very little I wouldn’t do for a cup of hot tea drunk in peace.  Wisely, she would couch her request for a visit to the park with the offer of making me a cup of tea and letting me drink it before we left. She knew that she had no direct power to make me go to the park, but that the right incentive would put me in a better frame of mind.  


How can you motivate him to go cheerfully without bribing?  Here is where negotiating comes in.  First, you are going to acknowledge that he would much rather stay home.  Second, you are going to ask if there is anything you can do to make the trip worth it for him, too.  At this point he might suggest a trip to the book store which is on the same side of town.  (If a child suggests something ridiculous like paying him $5, I give him a good hug and sloppy kiss and tell him Nice Try and then restart the negotiations.)  You might counter his request by pointing out that the bookstore means parking the car twice which is a real bother and would he be willing to go to the hobby store since it is right next to the post office.  He might explain that he has a particular book in mind and could he please just run in and get it while you circle the block. If both of you are flexible, usually a workable solution can be found.  If your child is not willing to negotiate, you are back to remaining firm with your expectation.  You might say something like, “It is too bad that you can’t think of anything that will make this trip more fun, but we still need to go.  I’ll meet you in the car in five minutes.”  As long as you have a generally good relationship with your child, he will accept the limit.  


If your child does not accept the limit and starts to argue or tantrum, first make sure to connect emotionally.  While it might seem counter intuitive to bring warmth and understanding when your child is being obstreperous, if your aim is cheerful cooperation, it is the place to start.  If possible, make physical contact with a hug or a hand on a shoulder and offer more empathy:  “It sounds like you really do not want to go out.  Was it a long day?”  Giving your child a few minutes to blow off steam, to express how tired he is or to complain about the fight he had with a friend will go a long way to making him feel better—maybe even better enough to get in the car without dragging his heals too much.   If he still refuses, you can again offer a sweetener and reiterate the limit.  You might say, “I wish I could leave you at home the way you want, and at the same time, this errand will take me too long, and it will be dark by the time we get home, so I cannot leave you.  Maybe now you can think of something that will make you happier to go.”  Again, if in general you have a strong relationship with your child, it is going to be easier for her to accept this limit.  At the end of the day, you might have to provide a consequence.  Ideally, you will have worked out and announced the consequence ahead of time, and now you will just be reminding your child that if he does not take action, he will be choosing that consequence.  


If you feel like you are doing a pretty good job offering choices (ie, control) and empathy (ie, recognition of how little control a child actually has and how hard that is) and your child is STILL not doing what you ask, it may be time for consequences.  (Review effective consequences HERE.)  If you need more guidance than an article, let's talk.  Find a time HERE.