Bribing Kids Works

Bribery can make kids eat their greens
Bribery can make kids eat their greens

Good news, parents! Bribing kids to do what you want really does work.

With apologies to Alfie Kohn and the reams of research showing that incentives for good behavior can backfire, a new study claims that bribes can work.

In a large scale study of kids vs. veggies, giving a kid a sticker each time she’s offered a vegetable she doesn’t like boosts her consumption of the veggie, even when the stickers stop coming. Kids who are merely consistently offered the veggie but given no reward don’t eat more of it, so it’s not just getting used to a new taste that does the trick.

It would seem rewards really do work, as long as you use them right.

I’m not above bribing my kids to do stuff, but I try to be very cautious about how and when to use a bribe. Mainly, I break out bribery when I’m asking my kids to do something for me that they wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to do and don’t enjoy. For example: the bank.

When I ask the kids to go to the bank with me, I let them take a lollipop from the counter. I don’t normally give them lollipops, but I also don’t normally ask them to stand quietly in long lines. I’m rewarding them for the gift of their patience and good behavior in a situation that I know doesn’t play to the strengths of the under-10 set.

I’ve never gone in for sticker charts, in part because I believed the research that says they don’t work and in part because I am not organized enough to consistently give my kids a sticker when they do something right.

Researchers think this study showed rewards working when others failed because it explicitly targeted foods that kids didn’t like. If you reward a child for doing something she likes, you do indeed teach her to expect payment for that activity whether or not she enjoys it. If you pay a kid – in lollipops, cash or stickers – to do something she dislikes, she’ll do it and maybe learn to like it better.

The moral of this story would seem to be to use bribes, but use them carefully.

What do you think? Do you bribe your kids? Will you now that you know it works?

Photo: shoes on wires