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Like you’ve never done it.

Like you’ve never said, “If you eat your vegetables, you can have dessert.”
Like you’ve never said, “Get an A in math this term and I’ll give you five bucks.”
Like you’ve never said, “You can stay up 15 minutes later tonight for every run you score in softball today.”

There’s no denying it. When we can’t think of any other way to get our kids to perform, we sweeten the pot. We offer a bribe. And usually our bribes work. Kids rise to the bait and do what we want.

So what’s so wrong with that? If bribes work, why do they make us feel queasy? Why do experts – yours truly included – warn against relying on bribery to motivate children? Where’s the downside?

There are a couple problems with making a practice of offering bribes. Bribes stunt a child’s development as a fully-functioning person and, at the same time, bribes undermine your authority as a parent. Not exactly what you expected. Let’s look more deeply.

When we offer a bribe as a motivator, we change the dynamic of the experience. Now the person who is being bribed is acting, not based on his own values and interests, but based on the values and interests of someone else. He has been transformed into a puppet. He is not a fully-functioning person. This is why offering a bribe and taking a bribe are crimes for adults.

For children, who are learning how to make decisions intelligently, being bribed short-circuits this development. It detours the growth of the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain needed for judgment and weighing consequences. The child who does something because she will be rewarded is unable to see past the reward to the true values the rewarded actions support. She is a less-moral person.

The second problem arises the day she turns the tables on you. Sooner or later your child will say, “Eh. I don’t care about that reward.” Or, she will start to run the bribe herself. When you ask for something, she will say, “What will you give me if I do?” Now her compliance is the bribe; she will do as you ask only if you agree to pay out. In both these cases, you are put in the position of having to up the ante to get the same results as before. Now it is you who are being manipulated.

While rewards work okay once in a while, they do not make a sound long-term strategy. Eventually the reward is no longer enough. Along the way, your child is diverted from growing into someone who can motivate himself.

If you tend to use bribes, it will take some effort to get out of them. Your child is used to being rewarded and is used to you making all the decisions. You must switch to a system in which your child rewards himself.

So ask him, “When you finish all your vegetables, how will you reward yourself?” Maybe he’ll say he gets dessert but maybe he’ll say he gets to play on the computer for half an hour.

Ask her, “When you work hard and get an A in math next term, how will you celebrate?” Let your child make the plan; if you make it, it is you creating a reward not her taking charge. Keep in mind that getting an A in math may not be entirely within your child’s control. Help her to set contingencies in case she misses her goal.

And ask your child, “When you score a run today, how would you like to celebrate that?” Maybe your child will say only that he will do a little dance on home plate. Maybe he will plan to high-five everyone on the team. Who knows?

The point here is that rewards that are important to the person (researchers say “salient”) are more effective than rewards set by someone else. Everyone wants to be her own boss and control her own fate. Children too. And setting goals for oneself and monitoring one’s own progress are key life skills.

Don’t derail these skills by manipulating bribes. Instead, guide your child in managing himself.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.