When is a Bribe not a Bribe?

I have two kids, and I try to have a life. As any parent can tell you, these two things are not always compatible. Say, for instance, that you fancy the idea of going to the grocery store. It’s not what I would call a radical idea. I doubt that most people would call it a radical idea, in fact. And yet, by the time you push that cart filled with food and two unruly children out of the store exit, you wonder what you were thinking when you decided that you needed to buy food.

Long before I ever had children of my own, I knew that I didn’t want to use bribery to motivate my children. And then when my daughter Hannah was little I read about the evils of bribery, rewards and praise, and my decision was confirmed. I would not say “good job” or promise candy in exchange for good behaviour. Instead I would … well, I wasn’t always entirely clear on what I would do, but knowing what I wouldn’t do was a start, right?

Just as any parent can tell you that having children is not always compatible with having a life, any parent can also tell you that the decisions you make when your first child is still an infant may not hold up once that precious little angel learns how to run and use the word “no”. Parenting is a journey, and you will be tested every step of the way. No matter how strongly you feel about bribery, your resolve may fade when you just want to finish checking out these groceries and you need a way to keep your kid still and quiet and away from the store exits.

It starts small, bribery does. For me, at first it sounded something like, “Mama really needs to finish paying for the food. If you can wait quietly I’ll finish up faster and we’ll have time to go get something to drink.” It’s fairly innocuous, right? I only have so many hours in my day, and the more time that I spend at the grocery store, the less time I have to do fun stuff with my kids. It’s just basic math. And I’m good at math, I would know.

Gradually, I’ve moved from a desperate ploy at the grocery store to more strategic positioning of fun vs. not-fun activities. Say, for example, that my kids ask for cookies, and I’m generally OK with them having cookies right now. But now let’s also imagine that in about five minutes I need to get the kids into shoes and coats and buckled into their car seats to go someplace. I could give them the cookies right now, and then get them dressed and loaded up. Or I could say, “We need to leave in a few minutes, and you can have the cookies in the car. For right now I need you to go pee and put on your shoes.”

If I give the kids the cookies now, I’ll end up with two sugared-up kids who will be too busy running in circles to get out the door in a timely fashion. If I save the cookies for later, they’ll be faster getting out the door and quiet in the car. Plus (I tell myself), it’s not even really a bribe, since I’m not offering the cookies to them in exchange for good behaviour. At least, not exactly. I’m just telling them that they can have the cookies at a time that’s more convenient for me, and in return garnering more cooperation as I go about my day.

I still believe that bribery is not the most effective form of parenting. Sooner or later you’ll have to remove the bribe, and then what? I steer clear of sticker charts and I’ve never given my kids a toy for using the potty. But almost every day I do ask my toddler to use the potty before he gets to do something he enjoys like going outside, dangling the fun he’s going to have in front of him as an incentive to gain compliance. I justify it many ways, but I’m not so sure where the line between working things in my favour ends and bribery begins. Can you really say that I don’t use bribery when I’m constantly placing tasks like peeing or cleaning before tasks like playing at the park or watching TV?

I wonder what you think. Do you use bribery? And how do you distinguish between bribery and basic common sense in getting through the day with kids? And if we all use bribery in some form or another, how bad can it really be? Please weigh in!

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  1. We use bribes liberally around here, because Kale responds really well to them. We used Skittles to potty train him and it worked like a charm. I always thought I wouldn’t be “one of those parents” and now I embrace it fully. We use logic and reasoning as much as possible, as well as limiting choices (“Kale do you want to get dressed by yourself or should mommy do it?”) but I am totally okay with using bribes in certain occasions.
    Jen’s last post … Status QuoMy Profile

  2. I totally agree with you that bribing is not the best form of parenting, but I don’t think saying ‘you have to do this before you can do this’ is really a bribe. It’s teaching your children about consequences. If you throw a fit in the grocery store, then we won’t have time to do something fun. If you choose to clean your room quickly, then you will be able to watch more TV!

    There is an undertone of bribing in ‘If you do this for me, I’ll let you do something fun’, and yes, in a perfect world it wouldn’t be like that, but we do not live in a perfect world, and sometimes, you just have to do what you can to get through the day! I think the line is different for every parent, and for each individual child.

    Of course, I don’t have kids yet, so one day I might change my mind!

  3. right at this very moment I am using a roll of life savers to keep my son on the potty long enough for something to come out of him. I regret nothing.
    Jenn’s last post … Happy Victoria Day!My Profile

  4. Dominique McGrady says:

    For me the difference between a bribe and a motivator is in how it plays out. How important is it to me and to them. It is all about how I am using the power. If I am using it with them I think it is a motivator. If I am using my power over them I see it as a bribe.

  5. I think of these types of things as incentives, not bribes. To me, bribes are desperate in-the-moment type things. But if it’s offered ahead of time, it’s an incentive. Okay, so it might just be semantics. But to me, there is a difference. I keep a stash of lollipops in my diaper bag for situations I know will be difficult with my toddler. If I know we will be somewhere that he will not want to leave, I offer a lollipop if he will get in his carseat and let me buckle him in. The same goes for sitting in the stroller (which he hates and we rarely use). At home, I might offer something like, “If you let me change your diaper, then we can read a story or go outside and play.” I’m not giving him anything I don’t want him to have but it’s an incentive for him to get his diaper changed. This doesn’t always work but hey, we do what we can to make our kids and ourselves happy, right.

  6. I don’t consider what you’re doing to be “bribery”. You are teaching your kids that there are positive consequences for appropriate behavior and that’s an important lesson to learn.
    Earth Muffin’s last post … Writers block be damnedMy Profile

  7. Melissa Fu says:

    A friend of mine this weekend told me a story about her niece who very patiently explained to her mother, “But Mommy, if you’d just say ‘yes,’ we wouldn’t have to have these arguments.” I think the niece is about four. Four going on seventeen. Around here, we call them ‘negotiations’ instead of bribes. We hold summits and make treaties. But somehow, crossing over from bribe to blackmail seems to happen a little more often than ‘Good Parenting’ might condone. Ah well. Parenting advice needs a pound, not a pinch of salt.

  8. At 18 months we haven’t really used bribery that much, but I’ll admit that sometimes a piece of his free cookie at Whole Foods sometimes makes checking out a little quieter =P
    Monika’s last post … Sunday Brunch- Fresh and Healthy Blueberry PancakesMy Profile

  9. I do bribe! One example. My five year old is tired and she wants to be carried. I can’t carry her but we do need to walk quite a distance before reaching home. I will tell her, let’s get an ice cream and lick it slowly on the way home. And we will make it home just fine.

  10. While I disagree with straight up bribery, I use it in carefully thought-out ways. Okay, maybe I bribe whenever I feel like it. Sigh. With potty training, I figure that until peer pressure is enough to make him want to do it, toys will work. However, I don’t ever bribe in the store. Honestly, I just let my kid pick something relatively healthy to eat and let him munch while I shop. I usually have a frappucino while I shop, so why be a hypocrite?

    As a teacher, I use bribes effectively. I start giving homework to my kindergarten kids. They’re all learning English, and they need to read at home with their parents. So I give out very short assignments that mostly involve re-reading a book we read in class and writing a word or two about it. Then, I give the kids a prize every ten days that they do their homework. You would think that this makes the kids only do homework for the extrinsic prize, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. . . Since my kids BEG for homework at the K/1 level, they never learn to hate it. They associate it with success and earning rewards. As they get older, it isn’t such an overwhelming task and they start to be rewarded BY doing the homework. Anyhow, it works for me.

    Frankly, carefully thought-out bribery is much better than beating your children (in my opinion), and it’s all about balance. I don’t blame you for timing fun stuff after boring stuff. Isn’t that what adults do mentally? “If I can just finish typing this report, I’ll check my facebook and have a cookie.” Or is it just me that bribes myself? 😉
    Melissa E.’s last post … An Evening on the Riverwalk- Part TwoMy Profile

  11. I don’t think I bribe my children, but I do remind them of all the fun stuff they would like to do only if they can hurry up and help me out a bit. But, then I think back to my most recent employment which was 6 years ago before children and I remember knowing if I worked extra hard I would be rewarded with a possible above and beyong cash bonus and a for sure year end bonus. So, isn’t that like a reward? Like you, I want my children to want to do things, but I as an adult I don’t want to do things most of the time even though I know I have to. I love natural consequences…..you act like a monkey in the store, we run out of time to go to the park….you don’t wear your coat to the park and it’s brisk and your cold..oh well, you will think next time. I don’t know what the answer is, we are all just doing our best to raise our kids and sometimes they wear us down! 🙂

  12. Rachael says:

    I’m pretty much on the same page as you with this. Yes, it’s a nuance, but to me there is definitely a difference between saying “you’ll only get A if you do B” and “you do B then it will be time for A”. I also agree it’s basic math when it comes to time. My kids know that the first person ready for school gets a turn of mathletics on the computer. If they are both ready the leftover time before we leave is split between the two. If they’re not ready for school then they won’t have time for the computer.

  13. On our very first roadtrip with a toddler, we were trying to get going after a rest stop and I heard myself say, “If you get back into the car, you can have a cookie! ” I thought how far I had fallen. But little did I know how much more there would be!
    Lady M’s last post … Hats and BustlesMy Profile

  14. At some point in the the middle of the spectrum between motivation and bribery, there is a fine line and I’m not exactly sure where it is.

    When I was potty training my youngest I saw “We’re not leaving for the park until you use the potty” as motivation. However, my liberal use of “As soon as you put something in the potty you can have a piece of chocolate” was clearly bribery. I don’t feel bad about giving a small piece of chocolate as a reward for M doing something that makes the day go more smoothly and, ultimately (potty training) makes my life easier.

    I do see more extreme, expensive forms of bribery as dangerous. I never give my children a toy at Target simply for sitting in the cart and being good while we’re in the store, like some parents I know. Good behavior is expected. Unlike pooping on the potty, which can be scary for a small child there’s nothing scary about sitting quietly in the shopping cart.

    As a high school teacher, I’ve seen what constant bribery can do. Parents who give their kids twenty dollars for every A at report cards are really cheapening the learning process and inadvertently telling their teens that life is essentially one big sticker chart, which kind of transforms them from free-thinking individuals into pets. “An A in algebra? Nice doggy, here’s your treat!”
    Audra’s last post … Art EvolutionMy Profile

  15. I shamelessly bribe. And, I also make sure that whenever he asks me for something, I ask myself if there is something I want from him first (i.e. cleaning up toys). But I believe there is a balance between positive and negative consequences for behaviour. I don’t think it is good to be exclusively one way or the other.
    Joyelle’s last post … Light My FireMy Profile

  16. I think it’s similar to “consequences” being logical and timely and following from a child’s actions, like if they keep throwing their toy and the toy breaks, then a logical consequence is that they are going to have to make do with a broken toy. But it wouldn’t make sense to tell them that if they keep throwing their toy, they won’t get to go to Grandma’s house two weeks from now. Just like buying them a new toy for behaving well at Grandma’s house wouldn’t make sense. But delaying the cookie-giving by five minutes or asking them to go pee before going outside wouldn’t constitute bribery, in my books. Or at least, if it’s bribery, it’s the logical, sensible kind, rather than the “huh?” kind.
    Amanda’s last post … The Lazy Bloggers Party SummaryMy Profile

    • Yes, exactly this. I feel like the difference between bribery and consequences is what matters. Saying, before you go into the store, that if you stay with mommy and don’t run away at the grocery store, you’ll get a cookie is quite different from pleading, in the grocery store while your kid is running away, come back and mommy will give you a cookie. The former is a consequence and the latter is bribery.

      That said, I offer smarties to my kid if he pees on the potty. Is that bribery? Maybe. But it doesn’t make him do something he doesn’t want to do, so I can live with it 🙂

  17. I don’t use bribery that much because it doesn’t work that well for my kids. Apparently they don’t want those cookies enough to behave well in the store after all. So it’s not that I haven’t tried it, it’s just that my kids must get enough treats or toys or whatever in other cases so that the special treat isn’t much of a draw for them.
    Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves’s last post … 13 Hours in the MakingMy Profile

  18. I bribe my kids. The hard core version of doling out candy for participating in an unpleasant medical examination or handing out toys during a long flight and, much more frequently, the more moderate version of “first … then …”. Is the later really bribery? Or just a way of helping the kids see the greater picture? Well probably a bit of both.

    I have (yet) to use a sticker chart, but I do have a theory that they are good for helping everybody involved in breaking the task down into small manageable steps and focusing on progress. I don’t mind that my son’s school use charts either. It seems like a fairly good place for them. In the home though I am not so sure.

  19. Bribing, in my mind, is giving a reward for every little thing, every single compliant behavior. It’s buying compliance without explaining anything or offering any opportunity for the child to be cooperative *without* the reward.

    What you – and I – and all these commenters, seem to be doing is breaking down the consequences and the way life works, to kid-level. If you do THIS you don’t get THAT but if you do THIS you will get THAT. Like someone above said, you do your taxes and THEN you get a cookie.

    I tried, memorably, throwing down an ultimatum with my then-3 y/o ; if you don’t go pee, we can’t go to the park. Guess who didn’t go to the park that day. I got to stay inside with my miserable kid instead! Yay! No!

    Because my bigger kid has an incredible sweet tooth, I don’t want to bribe with candy. He will just spend the rest of the day begging for more and that does me no good. But he is aware of consequences, how things follow one another. And I never take both of them grocery shopping if I can help it, although now that school is almost out I guess I will have to figure something out. Or we could just eat toast! A lot of toast!

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