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The Trouble with Bribes

Submitted by Heather on Wed, 06/14/2017 - 11:23

We All Bribe our Kids

You’re running late.

Your four-year-old is tightly focused on a play task, but you absolutely have to get her into the car in the next 10 seconds. To avoid the inevitable power struggle, you grab a piece of chocolate and say “If you get your shoes and come to the car right now, I’ll give you this chocolate for the ride to your friend’s house.”

She runs to grab her shoes and follows you immediately to the car.

Bribes often work in the immediate moment for the immediate goal, and the chores of parenting are endless. It’s understandable that we want some in-the-moment short-cuts to meet our daily schedule goals.

If you use bribes, you are in good company.  Most parents, including me, have at one time or another.

What’s Wrong with Bribing Children?

Bribes can sabotage future willingness to participate in family chores.

Imagine yourself, with a 10-year-old, asking this child to help you with the dishes.

He looks at you and says, “What do I get for it?”

You’re simply asking for support with some household chores, but having been rewarded on most occasions, he now expects it. When conversations about parent or household needs are not enough of a reason, many children are left with the impression that they are owed or deserve a prize for contributing as part of the family team.

Bribes work against the value of reciprocity over time.

If every time you did something for your child, it meant they must do something for you, that wouldn’t make sense. Reciprocity in relationships is a larger picture over time.  We help because we want to and we are helping our children grow these inherent values too.

Bribes rob children of the opportunity of the intrinsic gift of satisfaction inherent in cooperating with others. It tells them we think they need an incentive to cooperate or help. Send that message enough times and they may start believing it themselves.

Parents often find they must increase rewards over time for them to remain effective.

The luster of one piece of candy or a sticker might wear off. Often parents who regularly bribe find they need to increase the rewards to get the same compliance over time. 

Andrea shared a story with me as I was writing this article. Once she was approached by another parent at the park, amazed by her ability to relate to her toddlers. He stated that to get their child to leave the park, they were promising to go to Chuck-E-Cheese next. Andrea replied, “What’s next, Disneyland?”

Bribes cut out opportunities for social learning.

Using bribes to get children to comply isn’t the same as supporting a developing capacity for cooperation. Cooperation is a developing life-skill and it means working together towards a common purpose or goal. Compliance is simply doing what someone tells them to do.

When we resort to bribes to get our children to comply with our plan, this sets us up to skip over communicating with our children openly and honestly.

Early on, children may not resonate strongly with the needs of others. Psychologically they are more centered in their own needs. Hearing other’s needs are important supports for their developing empathy. The minute we decide to use a bribe in lieu of the conversation about our needs, we are cutting them off from an important wealth of information about understanding other’s concerns and needs. Primary relationships are the most important places to learn about the needs and rights of others.

Children need and want to understand the needs of others. Children have an inherent sense of equality and as they grow. They demonstrate this by talking about fairness and by their growing interest in helping others.  We can nurture this natural inclination by using moments of conflict to talk about needs in equal ways.

Using bribes models avoiding communication, children may grow to be less communicative about their own needs.

Our modeling is a powerful determinant of future behavior. Missed communication of parent needs can influence children’s capacity and confidence to voice their own needs at school and at home.

If bribes without communication of needs are common in children’s lives, they are simultaneously making their own mental communication maps, learning to communicate through persuasion by their parents’ modeling of the same.

The unintended but harmful subtext of bribes is that children shouldn’t be upset or cry.

Bribes can often be used to calm or quiet a crying child. When we bribe our children to stop crying, the unintended subtext is that expressing their feelings isn’t okay, or that we can’t tolerate hearing their feelings. The truth is, crying is a release of stress and can help your child regulate, becoming more cooperative, connected, relaxed, and loving.  There are lots of helpful articles that discuss this on the handinhandparenting.org website.

Why We Resort to Bribes

Our empathy for others is magnified with our children, and when our children are upset, we often have a tough time sitting with that upset. We want to solve the problem, and stopping the crying helps solve our internal stress over hearing the tears or upset.

Parenting is exhausting, anything that makes the day go smoother will be considered. Many parents have learned that you can more easily meet your own moment to moment agenda and avoid conflict if you plan to have bribes at the ready. Less tears, more cooperation, and no punishment involved. It seems like a win, win, win!

We tend to equate conflict, sadness and upset with bad. We sometimes resort to using happiness or tears as our immediate markers to correct or stay our sea course toward the happiness star.  Happiness seems to be the right end goal, but thriving children feel and often express many emotions. 

We often feel like we are harming our children by asking them to do something other than they would like in the moment. It’s hard for children to leave an activity they are enjoying. That doesn’t make it bad to on occasion have experiences where they are asked to move from their immediate engagement. 

What we can do instead?

Have patience with your parenting process, any change in approach takes time and practice.

I was recently at a wonderful parenting workshop where the presenter made the analogy of her workshop being like a first tennis lesson, nobody can expect to master this quickly. It starts with authentic communication and certain intentions about your long-term relationship with your child.

Reflecting about your goals for your relationship can help clarify day to day interactions.

Thinking long-term about the kind of values you are trying to support in your child and the kind of relationship you want, can go a long way in helping to figure out how to handle the here and now barrage of parenting demands. We typically don’t grow up to feel resentment because our parents enforced a rule about bedtime or brushing teeth or asking us to help with the dishes or laundry. We might resent other things, but these routine requests are reasonable expectations.

If your child struggles particularly with transitions, try to minimize the number of transitions that happen in your daily schedule.

Provide a 10 and/or 5 minute warning before each new transition, especially when you anticipate the transition will be hard for your child.

Create a dependable routine for most days.

Finding times when you can play with your child increases connection and decreases resistance over time.

The parent at the park asked Andrea how else he could respond, and she suggested he play with his child, get down on his level, and show some interest in his activity. Just this alone does wonders to create more cooperation when it’s time to go.

Communicating with clarity and consistency will help your child cooperate more.

The wonderful thing about setting an intention of clear communication around needs and expectations is that once the stage is set and the child is accustomed to the requests, these transitions become much easier. When children know that they aren’t going to change your need or schedule by wanting to continue with their immediate activity, they are less likely to protest it. There is dependability there.

When you are in that dreaded moment of having to be somewhere and you know your child will resist, at first request, you are simply clearly stating what you need in a connected way. Don’t ask your child but tell them- be careful not to end your statement with an ‘ok?’ as then it becomes a question. Getting on their level face to face, ensuring she or he hears you and feels respected with eye contact and warmth, “It’s time to leave for the park now. We are meeting our friends and we need to leave so we can be on time.”

Cultivate compassionate listening skills without trying to stop the tears.

During a non-negotiable transition, a few minutes of listening goes a long way. You may consider starting the transition early, so that you have time for this, “I see how upset you are about getting ready for bed right now, you were so happy working on that block structure, and you don’t want to stop now.” Waiting to ensure your child hears your compassion, possibly with a hug if they want one, before moving along to the expectation, “It is bedtime love, you need your sleep and I need to go to bed soon, too. Would you like to build some more in the morning?” The key is continuing with the expectation while demonstrating your care for your child’s needs. Over time, children will come to understand that not every moment is negotiable, and this can help create a regularity and daily framework that is helpful emotionally.

Cultivating your own capacity to be present with love while your child cries helps with overall regulation. Repeated upsets or ‘tantrums’ may be an indication of the need of more connection and a need to cry. We talk about this often with reference to the handinhandparenting.org website resource which has many articles about this.

Many problems can be discussed and worked out together, when there is a conflict of needs.

There are ways to practice the language around communication when there is a conflict of needs. Genuineness, flexibility, listening and simplicity are key. Parent Effectiveness Training is one method that discusses how to construct an “I message” and problem solving with your child using active listening. Susan North will also be discussing similar methods in the upcoming weekend parent workshop about conflict between siblings, cousins and peers.