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Why 'Bribing' Your Child With Treats... Doesn't Work (And What Does)

It's not uncommon for parents to offer their children a "reward" to get them to comply with a rule. But these are not rewards -- these are bribes.
10/08/2015 11:22pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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"Great job with your chores, Katie! Here's that cupcake that I promised you'd get for being so good."

It seems innocent enough.

After all, Katie has completed her homework, done her chores, got her pajamas on, and is behaving exactly as her mom told her to.

Why not reward the little one with a special treat?

That's fair, right?

It's not uncommon for parents to offer their children a "reward" to get them to comply with a rule. "If you tidy you room, then I'll take you to the movies." "If you are nice to grandma and speak politely all afternoon, while we're visiting, then you can have that new game for your phone."

But these are not rewards -- these are bribes.

And "bribery" is not an effective parenting technique.

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All a parent is doing is conditioning the child to always want "something" in exchange for good behavior, rather than behaving properly because it is the "right" thing to do.

If you rely on bribes to motivate your child, then the next time you ask your eight-year-old to clear the dishes off the dinner table, for example, don't be surprised if s/he asks, "How much are you going to pay me?" (This actually happened to one of my clients!)

So, what's the difference between a "bribe" and a "reward"?

Here's how I frame it:

If your child is complying beautifully with the rules you've set, you can verbally praise him or her ("Great job!" "Look at all those gold stars on your chore chart!" "Keep it up!") and offer a big, warm hug, but resist the urge to start doling out special treats for ordinary, everyday acts of cooperation. That's not how life works.

Think of it this way: you don't receive a bonus or a raise just for showing up to work on time, right? So, don't instill that kind of expectation in your child.

"Rewards" should be reserved for extraordinary effort -- not for doing the bare minimum that is required.

Let's say your son works tremendously hard on a school project. He goes "above and beyond" the assignment and earns an A+ for his efforts. In that instance, you might acknowledge his extra effort by saying, "I know how hard you worked on this project and I'm so proud of you. How about we go out and get those sneakers you've been wanting? And you can wear them to school tomorrow.")

To sum it up:

Rather than relying on "bribes" and "bribing" to persuade your child to comply, instead...

--Set reasonable rules and implement them, consistently.

--Choose fair consequences for non-compliance that motivate your child to comply (because they don't want to lose TV or cellphone privileges for a day, for example).

--Communicate the rules and consequences clearly to your child, having them repeat everything back to you so you know they understand.

--Track daily progress using a chart (like one of these) to stay organized, and...

--When rules get broken or chores get skipped, apply consequences consistently.

Most of all?

Be a good role model.

Lead by example and show your child that when we behave responsibly and make good choices, we receive so much more than a fleeting, external "treat" or "reward."

We feel happy, confident, successful, and a sense of satisfaction.

Next to those awesome feelings? No cupcake can measure up.

Thank you for reading.
Suzanne

PS. For more parenting tips, check out my regular TV segment on KHON2 TV Hawaii's WakeUp2Day. (I share links to each video segment in my bi-weekly newsletter). Also, check out my e-book: The Life Guide on How To Get Your Kids To Cooperate. It comes with an audio version, too, in case you like to "read" with your ears. Enjoy & mahalo! (that means "thank you" in Hawaiian).

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional or psychological advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always contact your health practitioner before starting any new wellness practice for yourself or your family.