Bribe or bust?

When we asked Minneapolis mamas, “Do you bribe your kids for certain behaviors?” — the confessions flowed like red wine on a Mama’s Night Out. 

The answer was a resounding yes! with all sorts of bribery booty involved, ranging from single M&Ms — given out one at time — to straight-up cash. 

You’ll find no judgment here. We’ve all resorted to bribes from time to time. Desperate times (toddlerhood, for one) call for desperate measures (bribes of any kind). 

Among local moms, the most popular bribes were marshmallows, chocolate chips, trips to the park, stickers, marbles in a jar (to earn a reward), screen time, ice cream and, yes, cash.

But how effective are bribes? How are they different from rewards? And how well do either of them work in the long run? 

Seeking definitive answers, we dug into the most recent research and talked with Dr. Carol Carlson, a pediatrician, mother of four and medical director at Southdale Pediatrics in Edina. 

Behavior experts say parents should avoid using food as a reward because it can encourage unhealthy attitudes about food and even kickstart bad eating habits.

Bribes versus rewards

The key difference between a bribe and a reward is timing.

A bribe is offered in advance to influence behavior, while a reward is given afterward to recognize achievement. 

Betsy Cadel, writing on the Alpha Mom blog, wrote: “A surprise trip to the gift shop for good behavior before you leave a museum is a reward. An unplanned stop at the gift shop to put an end to moping or whining is a bribe.”

In other words, the circumstances and behaviors involved do matter.

As Cadel put it: “Regardless of the size of the incentive (from an ice cream cone to an iPod) if it’s offered to encourage behavior that you’d like to see as part of your child’s character, like studying hard, or being a good pet owner, those are rewards. If the same offer is made for not doing certain things, like not throwing a tantrum or not being rude to a grandparent, then it is a bribe.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes rewards as “a good way to help children learn concepts or accomplish tasks” — as long as they bring out the best in the children involved.

But it’s a fine line for parents to navigate minute to minute. 

Psychology Today suggests that how we word our requests makes a difference. 

For example, when we say, “If you get your shoes and coat on, I’ll let you watch a video on my phone,” we are offering a bribe because the word “if” implies that it might be optional. 

To reframe this statement, we could say, “As soon as you get your shoes and coat on, you can watch a video on my phone,” which indicates a reward.

Charting your course

Reward charts for ongoing positive behaviors work well for kids who are taking on new challenges or learning positive habits. Once a behavior is mastered, the chart can go away and the new skill is just part of life. Then it’s onto the next skill.

Though every child is different, a good age to begin trying reward charts is 4 or 5 years old, when the relationship between cause and effect is more clear for kids, Carlson said.

For younger kids, such as ages 2 and 3, parents can skip the progressive charts and instead consistently award a single sticker or hand stamp after positive behaviors, such as after each tooth-brushing success.

For older kids, Carlson recommends starting out with attainable, short-term goals on reward charts. 

Though weekly goals are commonly used on magnetic chore charts — marketed to parents of kids as young as preschoolers — that can be far too long for kids who are still learning the days of the week.

“Going seven days is a long time for some kids,” Carlson said. “Start with smaller, achievable goals and then spread it out from there.”

Reward needn’t be extravagant, but should be geared toward your child’s interests and/or applicable to the task, Carlson said.

If you’re using stickers and a reward chart for brushing teeth, make the reward a new toothbrush for achieving the goal, not sweets. 

“Make your reward healthy or beneficial,” Carlson said.

Parents should avoid using food as a reward in general, according to doctors at the University of Rochester Medical Center, because it can encourage unhealthy attitudes about food and even kickstart bad eating habits. 

“Giving sweets, chips or soda as a reward often leads to children overeating foods that are high in sugar, fat and empty calories. Worse, it interferes with kids’ natural ability to regulate their eating. It also encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry to reward themselves,” said an article from URMC, titled Why Parents Shouldn’t Use Food as Reward or Punishment. “They may also start associating unhealthy foods with certain moods — when you feel good about yourself, for instance, it’s OK to reach for a sweet.”

Setting expectations

Bribes and rewards may be the salt and pepper of parenting, perhaps best used in moderation.

Dumping either of them on can result in a bad taste in your mouth or leave you exhausted — or both. 

Carlson agrees that rewards can be effective — if used for the right reasons and at the right time. She stressed that rewarding positive behavior is better than punishing unwanted behavior. 

But rewarding children for every little good behavior can have a negative effect, too. 

“Sometimes parents give kids rewards for acting the way they are supposed to, instead of expecting kids to act appropriately,” she said. 

With constant incentives, over-rewarded kids can struggle to find motivation to simply execute their basic daily responsibilities without compensation. 

They also miss a chance to learn coping skills for life’s most banal tasks, leading to what Empowering Parents coach Erin Schlicher describes as a false sense of entitlement.

“It happens quickly, when all you want is to change your child’s behavior on the spot, so you offer him something that you had no previous intention of offering,” Schlicher wrote. “It is a form of negotiating — and remember, over-negotiating puts the child in the driver’s seat.”

Carlson agrees that bribery can backfire in the long run.

“Bribery doesn’t change the original behavior,” she said. “It just fosters how to get more out of their parents. And they continue to not cooperate.”  

Avoiding dire situations

But what about those desperate times — those the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, running-late mornings? 

Carlson understands there are situations in which we all resort to bribery. 

The key, she said, is to keep bribes to a minimum. And, even more important, plan ahead to set yourself up for success — without needing bribes. 

How?

Remember where your kids are developmentally and set realistic goals. With toddlers, plan to run one errand rather than three. Know that trying to do anything when your kids are tired, hungry or not feeling well is a mission destined to fail or lead to a sucker/iPad/new-toy bribe. 

Bring along reinforcements on your Target run, such as a toy to entertain your kiddo in the cart (versus a new toy), or a healthy snack brought from home (versus Oreos from the store shelves).

Now what?

What if you want to avoid bribes/rewards all together? 

Carlson recommends a relaxed approach whenever possible. 

“From any age, when you start worrying about behaviors, an attitude of indifference always seems to work best,” she said.

This sly strategy can end a power struggle promptly, and kids become more likely to cooperate with our requests. 

If your 3-year-old refuses to put on her coat on a chilly December morning, Carlson recommends the following talking points: “You don’t want to wear your coat? That’s too bad. I love my coat; it keeps me nice and warm. It’s really cold outside today. OK, let’s go.” 

Then turn your head and walk away. Bring your child’s coat with you in the car — it’s very likely that after just a few minutes in 10-degree weather, she’ll be clamoring to put on her coat and you’ll have won the battle. 

In other words, natural consequences can be the best antidote for unwanted behaviors. 

Pick your battles

Ultimately, when it comes to child behavior, it’s the job of the parents to decide ahead of time what matters most and what’s unacceptable. 

Often kids don’t understand why the things we ask them to do are important to us — wearing the cute, matching pants-and-sweater outfit from Grandma to the family reunion instead of the favorite, food-stained, monster truck T-shirt. 

By taking the time in advance to think about how we want our children to act, we can prioritize which behaviors need correcting and which ones we can let go. 

“Figure out what’s important to you and what’s important to your child,” Carlson said. “Everything else just doesn’t matter that much. This is true at any age.”  


Laura Ramsborg is a freelance writer and mother of two (soon to be three!) children who needs to banish the M&M bribe jar from her kitchen.


5 tips for giving positive rewards

  1. Set up for success: Make sure your reward system is age-appropriate. Most kids aren’t developmentally ready to understand and succeed with a progressive reward chart until ages 4 or 5.
  2. Make awards attainable: For some kids, working on a single goal for seven days in a row can feel nearly impossible. Start out with smaller, more attainable goals to build your child’s confidence and progress to longer stretches of time. 
  3. Keep it simple: Focus on one to three goals at a time and keep them as simple as possible. The more we add, the less kids retain; too many details can become a distraction.
  4. Stay positive: Make sure to phrase your goals and praise positively. Instead of “Don’t be late,” try “Be ready on time.” Instead of, “Today you didn’t take so long to eat your breakfast,” try, “I like how you focused on eating your breakfast so we could leave on time.”
  5. Remain flexible: The type of rewards that motivate your kids will change from day to day. Be willing to make adjustments as you go, and remember that a reward doesn’t have to be material. It could be as simple as choosing the movie to watch, or picking which game to play on family game night. 

Sources: The American Academy of Pediatrics and Dr. Carol Carlson, Southdale Pediatrics