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‘What’s in it for me?’ Bribery as an effective tool

Published on: August 28, 2010

Parents using bribery on their kidsIf you’re like most parents, you’ve been known to slip some sharp negotiating into your parenting. In earnest attempts to encourage your children to rise to the occasions of your choice (behavior, report cards, playing cello), it’s entirely possible you’ve even cajoled, nagged, bargained or begged.

But have you bribed?
It turns out many of us — even honorable, high-integrity types — will resort to blatant bribery when little else works. Don’t think we’re talking about you? Then I’d like to give a special shoutout to those purists whose kids mastered the potty without the payoff.

Here’s Cheryl’s story: “My son was 18 months old. I needed to potty train him fast so I could start a new job. I took him to Toys R Us, put him in a shopping cart and wheeled him in front of the Rescue Heroes Aquatic Command Center. I told him: ‘When you are potty trained, I will buy this for you.’ He told me: ‘I have to go use the bathroom.’”

And from Tara Buchan, a ParentMap employee: “We did a bribe called the ‘I just ate it jar’ at dinnertime. If the kids tried a new food without staring, poking, complaining or saying it was gross, they could pick out candy from the jar.”

My own mother promised me Barbie doll clothes for practicing the piano (she still owes me the Princess Collection and a wedding gown), and I’m pretty sure I established a fairly sophisticated video-game incentive program when my kids were growing up.

Why it works
Should we feel guilty for bribing our kids? Not necessarily, says Seattle psychologist Fredric Provenzano, Ph.D. “As much as we’d like our children to perform a task because of internalized values, or because we expect it of them, sometimes they’re not going to feel motivated to do it.” And that’s when using a “tangible incentive” (he prefers those words to “bribe”) might work, he says.

We’re more likely to repeat a behavior if we get positive reinforcement for it, he explains. “We all practice goal-driven behavior. I wouldn’t expect a restaurant chef to fix a meal or a mechanic to fix a car without receiving some incentive.”

Incentives work best when we’re trying to get kids to do new things that might be difficult for them, says Jamila Reid, Ph.D., codirector of the parenting clinic at the University of Washington. These may include potty training (“From a child’s point of view, if there’s no incentive, why bother?”); practicing an instrument (“Mom saying ‘good job’ just might not cut it”) or reading, if that’s something your child finds challenging.

Even teachers use incentives. “A positive reinforcement method can teach kids why they should behave,” says Terra Holmgren, a Tacoma Public School District counselor. “A teacher might try to inspire motivation by telling a student, ‘Wow! I like the way you listened to my directions the first time.’ The teacher puts a point on the board, and the child learns it feels good when someone recognizes your effort.”

Should we promise prizes for good grades? “That’s too far removed, especially for elementary school kids,” says Reid. “It’s hard for them to see the connection between the work and the grade.” Reid suggests rewarding children for effort instead. “It makes more sense to encourage them to study hard for 15 minutes rather than promise them something special when they get a great report card.”

When it works
We’d all love our kids to perform, behave, even excel for the kinds of awards we call “intrinsic.” And we’d love to believe that, one day, our children will value their accomplishments purely for pleasure. But let’s talk about now: What are the chances your 6-year-old picks up her socks just for fun? Slim to none?

To help kids connect material pleasures to the feel-good kind, pair those prizes with praise, says Provenzano. Add a comment such as “You did a good job on your homework!” or “Look how great your room looks now that you’ve cleaned it!”

And make sure your reward is an appropriate one. A set of $30 Legos for getting your 8-year-old to toss his clothes into the laundry basket isn’t.

On the other hand, get real. As Provenzano points out, “Offering a nickel for getting ready for bed independently and on time may not encourage the desired behavior.”

Think through the process, Holmgren advises. Don’t set precedents that can come back to haunt you. “If your child is screaming in a store and you promise her something to get her to stop, she’ll learn, ‘This is what I get when I scream!’”

Intangible prizes can also be powerful, says Reid. “Encourage the kids to work for a movie night with mom and dad, or a special bedtime story. That social value is important to kids. They may try even harder for those.”

And consider your child’s age. “Any reward for a 3- to 5-year-old should be immediate, even spontaneous,” she says. “As in ‘You did such a good job — here’s a sticker.’” When kids are a bit older — say ages 6 to 10 — parents can add extra incentives. Earn three stickers? There’s a treat for that.

Above all, emphasize effort, says Wilder Dominick, head of Open Window School in Bellevue. “Let’s say your goal is to reward your child for getting a high grade,” she says. “The smart kids can figure out how to get good grades: just take easier courses. When you reward for the final product, you encourage them to not take risks.”

Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s associate editor and the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Academic Potential.

Guidelines for bribery

Bribing has its downsides, says Provenzano: Your kids might learn to expect a reward for just about everything — and could feel justified for refusing to behave without it. Here’s how to make sure this doesn’t happen:

  • Set incentives for a specified period of time. This can avoid a conflict over withdrawal of the reward in what may appear to the child to be unexpected.
  • Once you’ve offered a reward, you have to uphold your end of the bargain once the child has accomplished his end.
  • Unless the reinforcer is time-bound (such as a sleep-over on Saturday) or a pay-off schedule is set (all rewards are paid on Saturday mornings,) provide your pay-off as soon as possible.
  • Don’t give tangible reinforcers for every behavior. Everyone in the family older than the age of 4 years should be expected to help out around the house in some way, and to take responsibility for meeting their obligations at home, school and in the community.
  • Encourage children to look for ways to earn tangible rewards outside of the home, such as performing work for neighbors. Help children recognize a sense of neighborhood spirit and caring through participation in community service projects.
  • Talk with your children about your rationale and intentions for offering tangible reinforcers, and why you don’t offer them in other situations.
  • Discourage comparisons with other families. Your child will only bring up comparisons that place your system in an unfavorable light. Acknowledge that other families may have other rules, but explain that your family has its own set of rules and procedures.

 Source: Fredric Provenzano, Ph.D.

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