The truth about bribing your kids

bribe child
bribe child 

“If you put your shoes back on and come downstairs for the photos I will buy you the biggest doll I can find.”

It was a desperate plea to my stubborn three-year-old, who really didn’t care about her aunt's wedding pictures. I was desperate.

Her eyes narrowed. “A talking doll?” she asked.

“Any doll you like,” I replied, slipping her glittery shoes back on her feet. 

We hurried down the stairs and stood with the rest of my family among the wedding guests. 

“How did you do that?” my husband asked. 

“I bribed her,” I replied, smiling at the camera. 

I know I'm far from the first parent to have used this approach. In fact, a 2010 study found that almost a third of parents are bribing their children to ‘behave’. 

Sarah Fairchild* says that she bribes her three-year-old son, Gareth, on an almost daily basis. “It’s often when we’re in a hurry, trying to get him out the house or in and out of the shops,” she explains. 

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“I tell him that if he hurries up I will give him a treat in the car - usually a Freddo Frog or a couple of Smarties.” 

This sort of bribe is a way of getting a child to behave in the heat of the moment, says child psychologist Siobhan Quinn - and yes, there is a good chance that it will backfire in the long run.

“Bribery that continues over time can teach children that they can act out to get what they want,” Siobhan explains. “If your child is having a tantrum at the shops and you say 'if you stop screaming I'll buy you a lollipop', there's a good chance that next time you’re are at the shops there will be another tantrum.". 

She does, however, advocate the use of ‘rewards’. “Bribes and rewards are not the same," she explains. "Rewards are an effective parenting tool that we can use to shape children's behaviour.

“Rewards do not necessarily have to be tangible items that children are bought, such as toys, but can instead be time with a parent, such as the opportunity to bake a cake, or a game of cricket in the backyard." 

But some behavioural experts put ‘rewards’ into the same basket as ‘bribes’, warning that this method isn't sustainable in the long run. 

“Bribes may be effective to begin with, but a sticker soon loses its appeal, calling for something bigger and better,” says kindergarten teacher Fiona Elizabeth.

Fiona says that parents and educators need to be aware of the difference between extrinsic rewards, such as bribes and rewards, and intrinsic rewards, such as feeling good about achieving something. “Children are extremely intelligent - it doesn't take them too long to understand what is happening,” she explains.

“Children need to focus on the satisfaction they feel when they clean up after themselves and make their bed, as well as the 'warm and fuzzy' feeling they experience when they help someone in need. This is the most rewarding praise,” she says.

Susan Henderson*, a mother of two, agrees with this approach, and tries to avoid the use of extrinsic rewards to manage her children’s behaviour.

“I'm not comfortable using rewards as a way of coaxing desired behaviour, because there's conditionality associated with it. The motivation is the currency (rewards/stickers) rather than being motivated out of empathy for someone else.

“If I use rewards, the message I send my child is that their 'good behaviour' can be bought. They won't see this as a genuine connection, but a currency."

Instead, Susan focuses on intrinsic rewards, and tries to point them out in the moment: “I say things like ‘doesn't it feel good to help out Dad with the laundry? I bet he really appreciated you helping out’ or ‘learning is so much fun isn't it? Being able to write a new word feels so good'.” 

Of course, like many other parents, she does resort to a bribe now and then, and admits to offering ice cream when she recently needed her children to leave the shops in a hurry.

“I have been known to bribe my children in emergency situations,” she says. “I wouldn't be human if I didn't.”

* Names have been changed