Why I Bribe My Daughter and Why I Think it Works

Child Bribery
This little girl looks like she may have been bribed with an awesome new teddy bear.

“If you pick up your room, then we can go swimming.”  “If you play quietly for an hour, then we can go to the library this afternoon.”  “If you clean up all your toys and put everything away in the right spot, then you can have a piece of chocolate.”  I spend almost the entire day enticing my daughter with little bribes like this, and they always work.  But The Vancouver Sun‘s Curious Dad thinks bribery may be ineffective, and he’s using economics to support his theory.

While he acknowledges that the “adult world is full of rewards and punishments — we work to make money and don’t speed to avoid getting a ticket,” he says, in his family, he’s seen rewards develop diminishing returns.  He recalls giving his son a sticker every morning if the boy got dressed without fussing, but says, “it wasn’t long before we were back to the morning fight and the sticker bribe had no effect.”

Which brings us to the difference between bribes and rewards, and whether or not trying to decipher a difference between the two is just playing semantics.  According to Slate, there is a difference between a reward and a bribe, which I see like this: Bribing your kids is in essence begging them not to do something bad, and assuring them that if they can find it within themselves not to indulge in whatever bad behavior you’re trying to avoid, you’ll give them something they don’t really deserve.  Rewarding a child has a more positive connotation.  A reward is about reinforcing good behavior through offering a congratulatory prize.  So, the difference between a bribe and a reward is really about how desperate you are as a parent.  If you have a naturally “good” kid who is easy to deal with, it’s easy to reward them.  If you have a more difficult child, you might find yourself bribing them, which according to the Slate piece, isn’t going to get you too far.

My daughter is easy to love, but she hasn’t come without her challenges.  As I’ve mentioned here and there, she’s got a tantrum-y streak that ebbs and flows, and she’s had a bad habit of pooping her pants, which was easy to forgive at first because it was a medical problem, one that eventually morphed into a laziness issue.  What I’ve discovered in trying to deal with these treacherous aspects of parenting is that just as rewards are effective, so is punishment.  For the past month or so, every time my daughter has had an accident, she’s had to wash her undies out herself.  Wouldn’t you know it?  The accidents have magically gotten less frequent.  She hasn’t entirely solved the problem, but because her bad behavior has waned, I have more opportunities to reward her good behavior when she makes it to the toilet on time.  I don’t give her candy or a special privilege or anything like that. I just tell her how proud I am of her.  Praise makes a kid feel better than any sticker or cupcake can.

I guess I do all the things “you’re not supposed to do” while parenting my kid, because in addition to using a system of bribes or rewards or incentives or whatever you want to call them, I also make threats.  My threats were ineffective at stopping my daughter’s most recent bedtime tantrum, but I followed through on my promise to ground her, and so since then I’ve been able to say, “If you don’t go to the bathroom/come here/put your pajamas on by the time I count to three, you’re grounded!” to great effect.  I think it’s possible to use a system of incentives and (proposed) punishments in a way that is both positive and effective.  After all, it seems to work on most grown-ups!  What do you think?