Google+ Authentic Parenting: Sugar Coated Punishments: The problem with Bribes

Friday, July 12, 2013

Sugar Coated Punishments: The problem with Bribes

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 and Be Well, 



  1. How do you handle other people, mostly grandparents, who will bribe your children to do things? It isn't something that I would personally do so do I confront grandma on her tactics or just let it be? Sadly it is grandma's personality and she does it with all the grandkids "Oh, you won't [fill in the blank], I guess we know what you are getting for your birthday." or "You want this, then you have to come give me a kiss."

    1. Melissa- I find that when my children experience from other families/grown-ups or observe other families doing things differently we just talk about those differences, hopefully in what comes across in a non judgemental way that OUR family (mom/dad/sibs) have chosen to do thing in a way that works for us.
      It's one of those things, I know i cannot control or confront certain people or expect them to parent/address my children the way *I* think is best. if it's really becoming an issue, say your child is now demanding the same type of bribes from you, then it may be worth it to address it with the grandparents, depends on how receptive they may be? what the relationship already is like? is it worth it to you and your child? It is not easy, I will try to work on a post to talk more about these challenges!

  2. I have the same problem as Melissa, compounded by my in-laws' divorce. Both of them now spend way past their means to establish "better grandparent" status with gifts and treats that we won't be able to sustain (or store) the results! We live with my mom, and she isn't shy about giving my 2yo son whatever to keep him calm. She has a thing with confrontation and "negative" feelings and I am working on overcoming the problems that arise from bribery myself due to that. Any ideas how to get cooperation and respect without bribery or threats? Please? I'm running out of ideas and we're in the thick of the terrible twos.

  3. Anonymous - here is a post on ways to move beyond coercion and into cooperation (it doesn't let me hyper link you will have to copy paste these)

    and here is another one with ideas of what to do instead of demanding

    I hope that helps - hang in there 2 is challenging as your child is finding his own voice/own ways!

  4. My parents bribed me with sweet treats and as an adult, I became an active food addict. It has taken many years of therapy and group work to move into a healthier relationship with food. A few minutes peace is not worth your child's lifetime health.

  5. Melanie, thank you for so honestly sharing your story. I hope you are finding the support you need to move forward. stay strong!

  6. Love this post! and I agree with everything you said.

    I'm stopping by and following along via a lovely blog hop. ;)
    Maria @ This life's beautiful moments

  7. What is your opinion on reward charts?

  8. What is your opinion on reward charts?

  9. Do you think reward charts fall into the category of bribing? We're trying those out right now as a way to reward positive behavior and discourage negative behavior-- time outs have not worked very well for my son. However, I agree with your points about bribery and certainly don't want to accidentally communicate the wrong message to him.

    1. Rewards in their own aren't really a recommended parenting tool, though they are widespread. WIth rewards, you are teaching your child to do something for the reward, not for the actual activity or the joy they might experience from doing it. In Authentic Parenting, we believe that our children can internalize the desire for doing things without arbitrary external motivators


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