There are lots of ways parents can prompt, nudge and motivate their children to cooperate or “behave” nicely. Unfortunately, a really popular way to do so is by using bribes. Could it really be harmful to offer up “here is a cookie, ok, just stop crying and you can have this cookie.” Or “Come on, get into the car now we have to leave, I will buy you a toy at the store, your choice, ok?” or what about “smile for the camera, then I’ll give you some candy!”
Are there risks of continually bribing children to do as we ask them? Is handing over something sweet, a little money or a promise of a new toy so our child will stop screaming and get into the car, or put on their shoes, stop crying about a fall at the playground any better than threatening with a time-out or losing a privilege? Is there a difference between punishment and bribery? Bribes usually get children to smile and comply so it must be alright?
The problem with bribery, similar to using punishment is that bribes simply do not help children learn and develop skills for the long term. Let's look at just three potential problems with using bribes:
No self- discipline: Children that receive bribes to brush teeth, hang up their towels, buckle their seat belts and so on, don’t create any sense of responsibility for self, they also don’t feel in charge of their own self. It could so easily lead to an attitude of “why bother until the carrot is dangling?”
“What’s in it for me!” Some children quickly realize that they can get a lot more for a little more drama. Clench those teeth just a little longer, maybe I can get even more coins! Refuse to buckle up, last time I got a bouncy ball, maybe this time I can get a Barbie!
Sweet Misery -Too often children are bribed when they are crying, upset or having a tantrum except that instead of having their needs met with empathy and having a chance to go through all the emotions and feel better, children are hushed with a lolly or a cookie or the promise of a new toy. Unfortunately for many children this means they learn to simply push their feelings away instead of processing and feeling which is so important to develop self-regulation. The bit of candy here to drive away the tears unfortunately has the potential to lead to a whole slew of poor coping methods like comfort eating, smoking, drinking to name a few.
Bribery, like punishment may lead to immediate compliance, there is a reason it’s so often used! As much as I don't like bribes, I know at times I have been really tempted, and maybe even have offered up something that came across as a bribe, ugh! who’s perfect when it comes to parenting….
Anyways, does this mean all sweet treats and gifts are a no-no? No way! There are plenty of times when we can celebrate and gift our children, sweet treats can just be something nice to enjoy together too. Plus, gifts and treats would ideally simply be that, gifts and treats, not some sort of currency in exchange for compliance, our love and acceptance.
In the end, I think it’s important to remember what our intentions are and to keep in mind that punishment and bribery are on some levels one and the same, only one perhaps has a sweeter disguise but equally counterproductive to a true cooperate and harmonious relationship between parents and children.
What do you think, a little sweet to get that smile for the camera or a lolly-pop to get that hair cut done, a toy for getting into the car….harmless or not so much?
Peace & Be Well,