Child Bribery

The Problem with Bribing

We’ve all been there. What starts out as a quick trip to the grocery store turns into an epic battle of wills, destined to culminate in judgmental stares and humiliation. Most parents will do just about anything to avoid a scene such as this one and sometimes the quickest, most effective fix is a good, old-fashioned bribe. 

“Harper, if you will stop throwing a fit, I’ll get you some gum when we check out.”

These very words have come out of my mouth on multiple occasions despite the fact that I know I shouldn’t apply a monetary value to good behavior. My children should behave because it’s the right thing to do, not because they are getting something out of it, but how do I make that connection? How do I stop myself from taking the easy way out when it is 6 p.m. and I am pushing a cart through Walmart with three kids demanding my attention at the same time? And is using a bribe every now and then really such a bad thing?

Bribery can cause a multitude of problems in children that continue into adulthood. Offering a reward for a desired behavior sends the message that children are not capable of good behavior without a reward. Research also suggests that children learn through bribes that the desired behavior has no value in and of itself.

With record numbers of adult children living jobless in their parents’ basements, it is critical that we teach our children to self-motivate and not fall victim to the dreaded sense of entitlement that has plagued recent generations. A few tough, potentially humiliating moments could provide our children with the critical tools they need to be successful adults.

In addition to the damage bribery can do to a child’s emotional maturation, it can also do some serious damage to the family budget. If Harper learns that she can get a pack of gum for reigning in a tantrum, she may demand a small toy for the same behavior next time, which will snowball into a larger toy and, before I know it, I’ll be buying her an iPod and a Powerwheel just to keep her buckled in the seatbelt of the shopping cart. Bribery, like many quick fixes, is a slippery slope for all parties involved. It takes hard work to change our parenting strategies—so where do we world-weary parents begin?


Parents can start to change their strategies by remembering that the work of child-rearing is among the most important on earth and that real, meaningful change is worth our time and effort. Children must learn that their actions have consequences. A family meeting that outlines rules for basic behavior, along with the consequences for not following them, is a good place to start. Consistency and routine must follow in order for the changes to be successful.

In addition, a simple linguistic shift can mean the difference between a beneficial parenting strategy and a bribe. Parenting expert Jennifer Little, Ph.D., suggests that parents should use the word “when” instead of “if” to establish expected behaviors and eliminate the idea that the child has the option to not do something.

Keeping your cool is critical to effective parenting in nearly every situation. Using body language and a firm voice to communicate what you expect of them in a calm, specific and direct way will ensure that there is no misunderstanding, and your children will know that you mean business.

It can also be important to remember that a child’s behavior is rarely random. Try to figure out what is triggering the negative behavior by talking to the child and asking questions. Who knows? Harper’s tantrum in the shopping cart may be the result of a germophobia, or maybe she is scared of falling over. Fears such as these are often overlooked when parents resort to bribery, and they can be easily addressed without tears or bribes.

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