February 10, 2015

How Bribery Backfires

How do you get your children to do what you want? Do you offer rewards?

“If you eat your vegetables, you can have dessert.”
“If you clean your room, you can watch TV.”
“I’ll get you a toy if you stay in the shopping cart.”

If you do, then you’ve probably noticed that rewards don’t often work, or if they work once you have to keep doling them out to make them work again and again. Bribery has no power to teach good behavior, it can only engage a child’s attention for a little while.
Pretty soon the tables will turn. Your child will learn that he can extract a goodie from you by misbehaving until you give in and offer a bribe. Now you’re being manipulated by your child; he’s the one in charge of rewarding you.

Rewards turn everything into an economic transaction. When you offer a reward, you’re paying your child to do as you wish. Just as anyone in a purchasing situation can decide if the product is worth the money it costs, so a child will decide if complying with your wishes is worth the bribe you’re offering. Sometimes it is; sometimes choking down that broccoli is worth the promise of ice cream. Sometimes it’s not.

When your child asks you what’s for dessert, she’s asking what the payoff will be for sitting through dinner and trying everything on her plate. You can get a child to clean up her room by promising to take her to the movies. But you won’t develop her sense of responsibility, only her sense of power. The next time you want her to clean up her room, she will ask, “What will you give me if I do?” Kids can be bought, yes, but only so long as they agree to be your pawn.

Bribery is as corrosive to your relationship with your children as punishment is. Both rewards and punishment are intended to control a child against his will. Both make you into the enemy. Both inspire your child to sneak behind your back, lie, subvert your efforts, and challenge your authority. When your authority as a parent is based on your ability to deal out rewards, then you’re on very shaky ground.

So what can you do to get your kids to do what you want?
  1. Say what you expect, clearly and with kindness, but say it. If you expect your child to have a clean room before going out to play, then say that. Say, “In this house, we put stuff away before we do something new. Please put away the Legos.” This statement of fact is different from an offer of a reward. It’s a truth, not a bribe. The child can look to see if the basic truth has been fulfilled and then know he can go out to play.
  2. Be consistent. One of the problems with expectations and statements of truth is that they apply to everyone. They apply to you. So you also must put away your things from one activity before moving on to another activity. You also must eat your broccoli before having dessert. In addition, the expectations and statements of truth are the same every day. They don’t change.
  3. Notice what your current truths are. If you’ve fallen into the expectation that children will misbehave in the grocery store and then that you’ll give them a toy to keep them in line, you’ve created this truth. No wonder your child acts up frequently! If you want new behavior, you must create expectations to match, and you should expect some push-back when the old truths are replaced by new ones.
  4. Celebrate collaboration. There’s no reason why you can’t say, at the end of a marathon cleaning job, “Whew! We did great, didn’t we? Let’s have a great snack!” Celebration is good. It’s manipulation and the setting of conditions that works against you. Celebrate collaboration, not compliance. Celebrate responsibility and helpfulness, not being good. There’s a huge difference and your kids know exactly why that difference matters. 

No one likes to be manipulated. Everyone prefers to be treated with respect. When you avoid bribery in favor of clear communication and consistent standards, you develop your children’s best qualities. You permit them to be responsible people who can see ahead and know what to do in any situation.

That’s what you want, isn’t it? More than toys and ice cream, it’s what children want too.

© 2015, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.

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