We know as adults that bribing doesn’t feel good; it doesn’t feel right.  If our boss were to say, “If you’d stay a couple of hours later tonight, I’ll bring you a chocolate cake tomorrow”; we’d probably stay and do the extra work but deep inside we might be thinking, “gosh, I didn’t need him to offer the chocolate cake, I would have stayed anyway.”

It feels even weirder when someone in our family bribes us.  If our spouse were to say, “If you were to keep the house a bit cleaner, then you’d get a special ice cream.”  Well, wow.  First of all, it feels weird that they think they have the power over us to do that.  Second of all, they can help clean the house. Third of all, I’d like something special because you enjoy the time you spend with me, not because I clean the house.  Lastly, I do the best I can to clean the house.  I would have grave concerns about my marriage if this ever happened.

And what about rewards? Rewards are just another type of bribe.  A child who gets a prize for good behavior is the same thing as bribing a child.

There are two reasons why bribing doesn’t feel right to us and isn’t appropriate for most reasons when working with young children.

Bribing affects long-term relationships

One example of this is when parents bribe their children for eating.  If you eat all of your dinner, then you can have dessert.  This is by far one of the most common bribes that parents use.  It works, it is easy and it gets the job done.  However, it affects the child’s lifelong relationship with food. It gets to the point where the child demands dessert, the entire meal is plagued with negotiation and frustration and as they get older they idolize sweets as the end-all-be-all.

Instead of bribing children with dessert, you have a couple of options: 1) Offer the dessert (fruit, sweet muffin, or even a cookie) with dinner.  This will seem very strange at first and the child will eat the dessert first, but then continue to eat the dinner without a fuss.  Or: 2) The child is done eating when they are full.  Sometimes there is something sweet after dinner and sometimes there isn’t.  It really models how we want to be as adults and again, it will be strange at first, especially if everyone is used to bribes, but it really does work.

A second example of how bribing affects life long relationships is when a parent offers a treat for a certain behavior.   Sometimes parents will say, “I have a treat in the car for you if we leave right now.”   When we try to control another person’s behavior through bribes, we are saying two things; 1) I have all of the control and you have none and 2) people can be manipulated by giving them things.

We want our children to build life long positive relationship with their family members as well as everyone around them.  They can’t build positive relationship by controlling other people and using ‘treats’ to control them.  There needs to be some equality in the amount of control to have a positive relationship and gifts should be given because of the joy it brings, not because it can manipulate people.

Bribing affects intrinsic motivation

This one is pretty obvious and we all know it, and yet, we still bribe our children.  When we ask them to do something with a reward at the end, we are teaching them to do things based on what they will receive rather than how it will make them feel.  We are separating them from the essential skill to decide to do things for themselves.

The pipe dream for most parents is for children to be OK (or even want to) help out with chores, or do their homework.  These are the types of jobs that we want our children to be motivated intrinsically to do.  So the worst thing to do is bribe them for these behaviors.  This will make them want to do them even less.  What you need to so is build these behaviors into your daily life.  Show them that mom and dad do their chores and their work without fussing.  Talk about how nice the house is or how the family can support themselves when they do a good job.

I’m not saying that you can’t set a limit.  For instance, if you child needs to clean up after dinner and you don’t want to bribe him by saying, ‘if you clean up, you can get a treat’, you can say, ‘We all clean up after ourselves. Once you clean up, we can have play time.’  or another option is, ‘We all clean up after ourselves.  I’d be happy to do it for you, but then I won’t have time to help you read a book before bedtime.’

But you don’t want to be saying, ‘We need to leave the park now.  If you get into the car, I’ll get you an ice cream.’  Instead, you can say, ‘We need to leave the park now.  Would you like to come back again next week?’  I’m not saying that your child won’t fuss simply because you ask them if they want to go back to the park again.  They will, and fussing is OK.  Your children have emotions and being upset that they have to leave is an acceptable emotion.  You can comfort them by saying, ‘I know, I love to come to the park too and leaving can be hard.  Do you want to come back next week?’

When are the three times bribing is OK and why?

The three times that it is OK to bribe your children is potty training, working with children with special needs and during or after big physical feats.

Potty training

Pretty much every parent talks about using M&M’s during potty training but most parents don’t know why.   Let’s first look at the two reasons we don’t want to bribe; long-term relationships and intrinsic motivation.  Potty training is neither of these.  Your child won’t have a long-term relationship with learning how to pee and poop.  It may take years to finally stop having accidents, but the act of usually getting our waste into the toilet is short-lived.  There are also no problems with children not having enough intrinsic motivation using the bathroom.  We don’t hear older children saying, “I really should use the bathroom, but I just can’t motivate myself to do it.”

Because potty training doesn’t go against building a long-term relationship or intrinsic motivation, it is perfectly fine to use bribing to get results.

Children with special needs

I have spent many years working with children with special needs and although all children are different, there are a lot of children who benefit from using rewards for certain behaviors.  For children who are on the autism spectrum, they develop relationships differently than typically developing children.  The way that they build relationships aren’t always harmed by using rewards.  They also have a different way of being motivated.  Their brains work differently and I have found that using rewards and bribes only affects them in a positive way rather than in a negative way.

During or after a big physical feat or getting something special for doing something special

Let’s again look at the two reasons to avoid bribing, long-term relationships and intrinsic motivation.  If you were to offer an energy pill (skittle or small candy) during a bike, hike or ski, then you are not affecting any long-term relationships. Your child will learn that a little food during a physical activity helps with energy, which is absolutely scientifically correct.

Or if you were to offer a trip to the ice cream parlor after a big bike ride or after the swim race, then you  aren’t affecting long-term relationships or intrinsic motivation.  The child will still perform just as well during the bike ride or the swim race, with or without the ice cream.   And they may associate a big physical day with something fun at the end which is an OK association.  How many of you go out for a yummy meal after a big hike, bike ride or climb?  We certainly do.  It is enjoying life and celebrating all of the things we are physically able to do.

Treats vs. bribing

Just like rewards are the same thing as bribes (you do this and you get that) treats are very different.  Treats are simply for the sake of something special.  This definition does it more justice than I ever could:

“An event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure.”

Life isn’t just about abstaining ourselves from enjoying treats.  Treats by their very nature are special things to have every once in a while.  As soon as we are giving out treats for every behavior, they are no longer treats by definition.

So taking your children out for an ice cream every once in a while, or getting a new toy at the store, “just because” are encouraged.  Just don’t attach them to any behavior and you won’t be negatively affecting any long-term relationships or intrinsic motivation.