Bribing Children to Behave

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: “What is bribing and why does it work or not work in parenting or in life or even in general?

Answer: The definition of bribing is “to persuade someone to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement.” In the context of parenting, we will assume that it has nothing to do with something illegal or dishonest. It is an attempt to persuade a child, or children to act the way you want them to act in exchange for something, often something demanded by the child.

The problem with a bribe is that it is a set-up for more misbehavior in the future and an expectation of payment for compliance with parental requests. Instead of being rewarded by a parent for a job well done, bribes create a recognition by the child that bad behavior obtains rewards. Bribes create a sense of entitlement. It becomes all about what’s in it for “me.”

It’s perfectly acceptable to use rewards to shape good behavior, but they should never be given to appease bad behavior. Bad behavior must cost the child, rather than reward the child. So, the difference between rewards and bribes is that a reward is given for good behavior, often without expectation on the part of the child, whereas a bribe is offered during bad behavior in an attempt to end the bad behavior. And it’s often at the demand of the child.

There are certain behaviors, such as good manners or proper personal hygiene that should simply be expected and need no rewards. But rewards can help a child overcome past behavioral problems when properly planned.

This is often accomplished with some form of token economy mitigated with a cost-response system. To accomplish this, the parent would decide ahead of time what behaviors they want to change. Some predetermined calculable amount of reward would be given for jobs well done. For unacceptable behaviors or jobs done poorly, there would be a loss of some portion of the reward (i.e., cost response). In that way, both rewards and punishments are involved in developing good behavior in children.

If a child throws a tantrum because he or she wants something in a store, the best thing to do would be leave the store and address the behavior, without giving in to the demand of the child. To bribe the child by meeting his or her demand will guarantee more tantrums and more bribes in the future.

My wife and I raised five children and I do not recall them touching things on shelves in the store or throwing tantrums demanding things. We had expectations for them before they went into the store. And from time to time they received rewards because they had been exceptionally good, or because we chose to reward them. They also knew that bad behavior would be punished.

The book of Proverbs in the Bible is chocked full of good advice on parenting, and one verse that comes to mind concerning this subject is, “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (Proverbs 19:18, KJV).

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].

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