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Is Bribing Our Kids Really So Bad?

Photograph by Twenty20

Bribing = Bad Parenting. Isn’t that what everybody says? But can I be honest for a second? I totally bribe my kids. In fact, I’m pretty sure every parent I know bribes their kids.

A friend of mine carries a little baggie of Skittles in her purse for the sole purpose of enticing her children to behave in stores. Another mom I know regularly incentivizes her kids with screen time if they promise to get their homework done. I try not to bribe my own children only because I want them to know they should obey me simply because I'm their mother, not because they're getting something out of it.

But you know what they say: desperate times call for desperate measures.

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I'll admit I often bribe my kids by offering them sweets or screen time or whatever the heck they want, if they'll just take a nice picture for Mommy. I love getting photos of my kids, especially on special occasions when they’re all dressed up and looking cute, but kids are kids, and sometimes they need the motivation of a lollipop in order to stay still and take a decent picture.

But then the mom guilt seeps in: am I causing psychological damage by bribing them? Is this going to make them never want to do anything without a reward?

So I asked two different parenting experts to get their take on the whole thing.

Child psychologist Dr. Liz Matheis says bribery isn’t as bad as some make it out to be. “It sounds like you're trying to get your child to engage in some sort of positive behavior in order to work towards a specific goal. Basically, you're offering a reinforcement for the desired behavior. You're setting up the series of events that will take place, your expectation, and the reward that you will offer for compliance."

We use them because we think it'll motivate our kids to change their behavior. But what it does is the opposite.

According to Dr. Matheis, children like to work towards rewards, but instead of offering them in the moment of desperation (like when your kid is already throwing a fit,) you should be in control of how the deal goes down from the beginning. It seems like the trick is setting up an expectation prior to an event and then offering positive reinforcement when the desired behavior is achieved.

Not so bad, right?

But before you get all excited, Emily McMason, a certified parenting coach, has a different take on it. “Rewards. We use them because we think it'll motivate our kids to change their behavior. But what it does is the opposite.”

She says that bribing children teaches them what something is worth. For example, if we offer the child a slice of pizza for reading 100 pages, then that's all they'll read. Perhaps they might have read more, but since they were only required to read 100 to gain their reward, they'll stop there. Other children might not be interested in the reward of pizza, therefore they won't read at all.

McMason also believes that children should be internally motivated, not externally motivated. “In other words, we want kids to do things because they know it's the right thing to do and they get satisfaction from conquering something new, or contributing to the family, group or class."

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She believes that instead of offering a new toy or sweet treat to get our children to behave in the store, we should say something like, “I know we're headed to the store and there are so many things to look at. Let’s each find one thing we like most for our ‘look with my eyes wish list’ and then on the drive home we can talk about why we thought it was so interesting.”

I have to admit, I’m a bit skeptical about this approach. I’m not sure my kids would fully understand the concept of the “look with our eyes wish list.” But then again, it might turn into a fun game after they get used to it.

In the end, every parent has to find the method that best works for them and their children. I personally believe that as long as we plan ahead and stand our ground—instead of giving in to whining and tantrums—then a little bribe here and there won’t hurt a bit.

Famous last words, I know.

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